By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 1, 2009
Landon Milbourne leaned forward slightly in his chair, forearms pressed against his thighs, and tossed a tennis ball back and forth, right hand to left, left to right. Focus, said Milbourne, is of the utmost importance this time of year.
The mind cannot afford to wander from the task at hand, he said, all the while continuing his exercise in hand-eye coordination. Milbourne, the embodiment of the sacrifices this Maryland team has made and the obstacles it has overcome, acknowledged many potential distractions could divert the Terrapins' attention -- a potential NCAA tournament berth at the top of the list.
But with a game tonight at North Carolina State, an ACC opponent with far less-imposing credentials than Maryland's previous three foes, at least one Terrapin appears to understand that without a win, his team's chief potential distraction may devolve quickly into false hope.
"Personally, I don't pay attention to it," Milbourne said of all the bracketology chatter. "I'm just focused on what we're doing and how we can get better and get our wins. I mean, that's the only thing you really have time to think about. If you start thinking about what's going to happen and trying to predict things, you know, it might just mess up the chances in your head."
With three regular season games remaining, the Terrapins' margin for error is slim. Maryland (17-10, 6-7 ACC) needs two more wins to finish .500 in conference play.
Maryland has lost two of its last three games, all of which were against teams that were ranked No. 13 or higher nationally. The Terrapins played no true road games during their nonconference schedule and have gone 1-5 at opposing ACC venues. Their lone remaining home game is Tuesday against No. 13 Wake Forest.
Maryland has missed the NCAA tournament in three of its past four seasons and remains in danger of doing so again this year, a concept that once bewildered some of the team's younger players given the heights the program has reached over the past two decades under Coach Gary Williams.
"Coming into Maryland, I thought the NCAA tournament was kind of like an automatic thing, you know?" sophomore forward Dino Gregory said. "But going through last year, I see you've got to work to get there. And also that's a big thing this year."
Working in Maryland's favor are two wins over teams that were ranked in the top five in the nation -- Michigan State and North Carolina -- as well as a recent victory over another squad whose NCAA tournament at-large candidacy remains in question, Virginia Tech.
All told, Williams said yesterday, he is content with the opportunity facing his squad, precarious as its position might be. Before speaking with reporters, Williams watched the first half of Georgetown's road game at No. 10 Villanova. He called that contest "crucial" for the Hoyas (15-12), who remain a long shot for an NCAA tournament berth despite claiming a 56-54 win over the Wildcats.
"Some teams don't play crucial games this time of year," Williams said. "We are, and I'd much rather be in this situation than not have that opportunity."
Tonight against North Carolina State (15-11, 5-8), Maryland will square off against a team that has undergone significant lineup changes in the past month.
Wolfpack Coach Sidney Lowe thrust 6-foot-8 forward Tracy Smith into the starting lineup to supplement 6-9 forwards Ben McCauley and Brandon Costner. Courtney Fells (6-6) moved over from small forward to shooting guard.
"They're funny," Williams said. "They have gotten bigger, but their big guys shoot threes like a lot of teams' guards shoot threes, so it doesn't change their dynamic."
Fells (39.6 percent) and Costner (37.6 percent) are the Wolfpack's top three-point shooters, and 6-9 forward Dennis Horner (37.5 percent) provides some long-range shooting touch off the bench.
For Milbourne -- who was asked this season to assume more of an interior presence despite his unimposing size (6-7, 207 pounds) and preference to play on the wing -- North Carolina State's style will enable him to play within more comfortable parameters and make maintaining focus a little easier.
As he sat at Comcast Center yesterday, Milbourne repeated his level feelings toward his team's potential postseason plans, his responses in metronomic rhythm with the travel of his tennis ball.
"That's the ultimate goal," he said. "That's why we come here -- to get to the NCAA tournament. And then when you get there, you try to make a run and see what can happen. But we just got to get there first."