Maryland Terrapins Hope to Gain Berth in NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament

Greivis Vasquez and his Maryland mates will tangle with four ranked ACC teams down the stretch in pursuit of an NCAA tournament berth.
Greivis Vasquez and his Maryland mates will tangle with four ranked ACC teams down the stretch in pursuit of an NCAA tournament berth. (By Gail Burton -- Associated Press)
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By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Early in their adolescence, Greivis Vasquez and a group of close friends used to head over to the horse track across the street from his apartment building in Caracas, Venezuela, around 6 a.m. on Saturday mornings. They would talk to the horse trainers and offer to clean the stables or feed the horses in return for some sage advice.

Later in the day, they would place small bets -- usually around the equivalent of five dollars -- and they often made the right picks. Many of the other gamblers who had stuck to the three favored horses forecast in the daily track gazette wondered how the young kids with no experience were so accurate in their predictions.

"Sometimes they set those races up, and you've got to understand you got to know people to win a little bit of money," Vasquez said, a sly grin spreading across his face. "We used to do all that just to have [the trainers] hook us up and tell us if their horse is going to get a chance to win or not. And they used to tell us."

Years later, Vasquez and a different set of companions -- his Maryland teammates -- once again are in position to get away with something they know isn't widely expected. While neither tonight's contest at No. 13 Clemson (20-4, 6-4 ACC) nor any of the Terrapins' remaining games will be fixed ahead of time, surviving this upcoming stretch with a net gain will require Maryland (16-8, 5-5) to seize every advantage it can find.

Home dates with No. 3 North Carolina, No. 9 Duke and No. 8 Wake Forest linger on the horizon, but as the team prepared to depart from Comcast Center yesterday, a singular focus resounded. Clemson is fresh off an overtime loss at Virginia on Sunday and has played inconsistently in recent weeks.

The Terrapins, meantime, have won three of their last four games and are competing with a newly discovered "quiet confidence," according to Coach Gary Williams.

"Here we are with some meaningful games coming up," Williams said yesterday during the ACC coaches' teleconference, "especially [tonight] against Clemson, which is a very important game for us all of the sudden."

After a slow start to its conference slate, Maryland appeared destined for its fourth NIT appearance in the past five seasons. But by defeating Virginia Tech, 83-73, on Saturday, the Terrapins placed themselves on the verge of "bubble" status for the NCAA tournament.

Senior forward Dave Neal said the team breaks its conference schedule in half for purposes of evaluation. Maryland went 3-5 in the first segment but is 2-0 in the second.

"We're fired up," Neal said. "We're going to go down there just as excited as they are and hopefully come out with this win. We know how big it is for us to keep us on this run that we're in right now. If we could go down there and steal one on the road, I think it would be huge for us."

Last season, Clemson knocked off Maryland at Comcast Center, 73-70, in the regular season finale and kept the Terrapins from securing a 20th win, typically the benchmark for drawing an NCAA tournament invitation. Neal said the players are cognizant of what that loss meant and that "we keep that in the back of our minds."

Williams said one of his crucial tasks this season has been to keep the players as single-minded as possible, to make them hone in on the next day's practice or the next night's opponent so that their thoughts do not wander to peripheral distractions.

In recent weeks, Williams has been the subject of scrutiny over his recruiting practices. That, his players say, has only fortified their desire to succeed.

The Terrapins understand they are an undersized unit on which low expectations were placed at the season's outset. But if their performances continue to improve, they are hoping to enjoy some of the spoils that often accompany success.

"We've got the tough teams at home and the teams that we should beat are on the road," Neal said. "They can talk about last four teams in [the NCAA tournament], last four teams out, and if we keep on winning we're eventually going to have to be one of the last four teams in."

At the horse track, Vasquez and his friends spent their winnings on ice cream, candy and soda. He ate two empanadas each race. While the prize has changed since those days, the approach for Vasquez and his current crew remains much the same.

"The more you won, the more you could eat, the more fun you would have at the track," Vasquez said. "By the end of the night, we probably won 30 dollars and go back home with 10. But we were having a good time."

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