Michael Wilbon: A 1-in-65 Chance Would Suit Maryland Just Fine

By Michael Wilbon
Friday, February 27, 2009

You can hear the breathing getting heavier, see the effort becoming more desperate, because in two more days it'll be March. The gun is about to sound to signal the bell lap, the frantic sprint to the finish to see who can qualify for the real race. Maryland experienced it Wednesday night, the exhilaration of getting in position to knock off No. 7 Duke, the devastation of not only losing, but losing ground with so little time left in the regular season. Don't believe the college football people who try to convince us that a playoff at the end renders the regular season useless.

The regular season is especially meaningful now because the NCAA tournament appears particularly wide open. There's no dominant team on the men's side, which is why just getting into the field is so important.

"You always want to get in," Maryland Coach Gary Williams said in regards to the NCAA tournament. "But there are times when there's a dominant team or two, and then there are times when it appears more wide open. . . . I think we could be a really tough out if we just get in. . . . But we're not there yet. We've got to win a couple of more games to get in."

Of course, Williams is right in his assessment. North Carolina is the most talented team, but the Tar Heels have made themselves susceptible to upset by refusing to play defense against the country's top guards.

Connecticut and Pittsburgh could very easily use so much energy just getting through the contentious and exacting Big East, they'll have little in the tank left for the rest of March.

Locally, it's been mostly a winter of discontent. Virginia, next to last in the ACC, won't be dancing this March. Neither will George Washington, which will be lucky to make the Atlantic 10 tournament. George Mason, like several Colonial Athletic Association teams, has played pretty well, but the league picked the wrong time to be balanced and fairly deep. Usually around this time of the year, I'm stumping for the CAA to get an at-large bid or two; this season, it looks like a one-bid conference.

AU has home-court advantage throughout the Patriot League tournament and has a pretty good chance of winning it, thereby earning back-to-back trips to the NCAA tournament. But it won't be one of those winters where four or five local teams reach the tournament. In fact, we could be looking at zero local teams in the tournament.

Even though Georgetown went 10-1 to start the season and scored a win at U-Conn., the Hoyas are too young. As Louisville Coach Rick Pitino accurately observed the other day, young teams can jump out to a quick start, but usually they wear down in the face of consistently good opposition, which is what the Big East has in droves. What's surprising is the level of angst around Georgetown, given that the program reached the Final Four two years ago. What, the Hoyas are supposed to do that every year? They were never going to march through the Big East with that baby-faced team. Georgetown will have to win its three remaining regular season games, then reel off three and perhaps four victories in the Big East tournament to get an at-large bid, none of which is likely.

Angst also has taken up residence in College Park, where drama has overtaken just about everything this winter. Yet Maryland is the only school around here with a reasonable chance to get into the tournament and win a game or two. First, the Terrapins need two victories in their final three regular season games against North Carolina State on the road, Wake Forest at home and at Virginia. They'll likely need to win one game in the ACC tournament after that, especially if fellow bubble teams like Virginia Tech keep winning.

I've rarely seen Williams so exhausted after a loss. It's probably because he's been battling an ACC schedule and the people who ought to be supporting him.

I can understand how some Maryland supporters could be disappointed at the team's fortunes since the Terrapins won the NCAA title in 2002, but the sense of entitlement many express is unbelievably shortsighted and delusional. Remind me, one more time, of how many national championships Maryland had won before Williams arrived? Remind me, one more time, how many Final Four trips Maryland had made before Williams arrived? Remind me, please, of who left a comfortable job with a perennial 20-win team at Ohio State to come bail out his alma mater, whose program was about to receive sanctions just short of the death penalty.

Maybe their memories are short; mine isn't. Maryland basketball after Len Bias's death was on life-support. It was nothing. And now, many of those who sat and cheered the resurrection think Maryland is Kentucky, or North Carolina, or Kansas, or, dare I say it, Duke?

They think Maryland has been granted basketball royalty status and Williams should pay penance? These fools better get a good look at the Notre Dames and Nebraskas and all the other athletic programs that ran off fine coaches, only to sink into sub-.500 seasons. They'd better, as the kids say, recognize.

All Georgetown and Maryland need to do is stay at it. What, John Thompson III is a complete dope two years after going to the Final Four? Are fans really that dumb these days? Young kids become older kids and both programs can be right back in the thick of it next season. Asked last night about the heat Williams is taking, Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said: "I love Gary. We've had some battles over a lot of years, but I love Gary Williams. I think the world of him as a basketball coach. He, Jim Boeheim and I . . . we're all old farts. We got in this a long time ago for the right reasons. I know how hard Gary has worked, what he did to build this."

These weren't just gracious words from a victorious opponent; it was perspective from somebody who knows what is at stake and how difficult it is to sustain the kind of excellence that's necessary in March. Maryland needed to beat Duke on Wednesday night, and not getting the victory puts pressure on the team to win at N.C. State, then again on Tuesday against Wake Forest. It's a team lacking experience, a team lacking that one explosive player who can grab a rebound or a loose ball after the defense has forced a missed shot.

Thing is, not many teams have that one player right now. And even the teams that have one don't have two or three our four like Florida did in those back-to-back championship seasons. You get past North Carolina, U-Conn., Pitt and perhaps Oklahoma, and it's a pretty fair fight, which is why Williams wants the next game, against N.C. State, even more than he wanted the one against Duke: Because just getting in might lead to something very, very good.

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