Terps Are In Critical Condition

By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 28, 2008

Maryland Coach Gary Williams was hoarse yesterday after losing much of his voice on Saturday's flight back from Miami following the Terrapins' second consecutive loss. He believed his condition was a cumulative effect of a long season.

"I'll get it back," Williams said.

Less certain is whether his team will regain momentum after losing three of the last four games to damage its NCAA tournament hopes. The Terrapins will spend the next 2 1/2 weeks scrambling for one of the last at-large tournament berths, beginning with tonight's critical game at Wake Forest.

It is not a must-win situation for the Terrapins, but with a loss, they likely would need to win the next three games, including their ACC tournament opener, to have a shot. Maryland (17-11, 7-6) finishes the regular season against Clemson on Sunday and at Virginia on March 9.

Williams said it is futile to worry about NCAA tournament scenarios and important to remain focused on a Wake Forest team that has won three of its past four games, including a Feb. 17 victory against Duke.

"That's the key: to not worry about if this team beats that team, or I hope they lose," Williams said. "We have to win our games. That's a lot of wasted energy this time of year worrying about that, worrying about the NCAA. You can worry about it, but it doesn't do you any good. What's the point?"

Avoiding a three-game losing streak in late February is particularly critical because three other ACC schools -- Wake Forest, Miami and Virginia Tech -- have recently enhanced their tournament profiles and are also in contention for berths. Earning a berth could come down to small differences among teams with similar credentials.

If Maryland were to win only one of its next two games, analyst Jerry Palm of http://www.collegerpi.com said it would probably help the Terrapins most to beat Clemson at Comcast Center because the Tigers are ranked 24th in the Ratings Percentage Index, the mathematical formula that measures a team's strength.

Maryland's Jan. 19 victory at North Carolina is its only victory against a top 50 team. Beating the Tigers would "be another top 50 win," Palm said, "and Maryland doesn't really need a road win to boost up that part of their r¿sum¿. Also, their RPI is slightly better off with the home win. If they only win one of those [next] two, the Virginia game may be vital."

Recent struggles have caused Maryland's RPI to drop to 68. Since the formula was adjusted three years ago, no team with an RPI worse than 63 has earned an at-large berth. The tournament selection committee does not select a certain number of teams from each conference. But head-to-head matchups in conference play could be a factor in the selection process.

Virginia Tech has an identical overall record as the Terrapins and a similar RPI (62). While the Hokies do not have a win over a top 50 team, they did sweep the regular season series with the Terrapins.

"It is possible for Virginia Tech to get left out and Maryland to go in," Palm said. "If they get to the point where they are both very even, head-to-head could come into play. Maryland's profile right now is better than Virginia Tech's profile."

Wake Forest (16-9, 6-6) is also suddenly in contention. Maryland beat the Demon Deacons, 71-64, on Jan. 15, but they have played better recently, particularly at home. Wake Forest is 14-1 at Lawrence Joel Coliseum, where it allows 12 fewer points than it does on the road.

The Demon Deacons have been ranked near the bottom of the ACC in three-point shooting for much of the season, but they have recently been hot from beyond the arc. In its last five games, Wake Forest has made 45.7 percent of its three-point shots.

Williams said Wake Forest has perimeter players capable of spreading the defense and penetrating, much like Miami and Virginia Tech. The key to Maryland's offense is passing, something Williams believes has been sub-par in recent games.

He said players have been late getting the ball to open teammates, and that it has been a focus in practice over the last few days. Another area of concern is bench play. Maryland's reserves have not scored more than five combined points since the loss to Duke on Feb. 13.

Redshirt freshman Jerome Burney provided a positive contribution in the Miami loss, scoring four points and grabbing five rebounds in 12 minutes. At a minimum, Williams wants his big reserves to "just be active" on the floor. But the team could use the scoring from any reserve.

"You can be concerned about it," Williams said, "but players have to score."

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