To Keep Playing, Maryland and Virginia Tech Need Wins in ACC Tournament

Coach Gary Williams's Maryland Terrapins hit turbulence, blowing a big lead at Miami, then losing in overtime at Florida State three days later.
Coach Gary Williams's Maryland Terrapins hit turbulence, blowing a big lead at Miami, then losing in overtime at Florida State three days later. (By John Bazemore -- Associated Press)
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By Steve Yanda and Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 12, 2009

ATLANTA, March 11 -- As one of two active ACC coaches who also have competed in the conference's postseason, Maryland Coach Gary Williams can recall the days when only the league's champion advanced to the NCAA tournament.

Williams said the pressure his current players feel heading into Thursday night's opening round of the ACC tournament at the Georgia Dome simply cannot compare to the sensation created during the days before bracketology and bubble watches.

"I mean, I think we had teams ranked number one and number two in the country and not going to the NCAA tournament because of the way it was set up," said Williams, who played for Maryland from 1964 to 1968. "It's different now, but every team has a mission down there, whether it's to get a better seed, get a number one seed, win the tournament to guarantee you your right to the NCAA tournament. Every team has a thing that they're trying to do."

For teams such as Maryland (18-12, 7-9 ACC) and Virginia Tech (17-13, 7-9), the to-do list includes winning at least two games here this week -- though three wouldn't hurt. Both squads dropped crucial decisions this past weekend that placed them in precarious NCAA tournament positions. Now, the Terrapins and Hokies must atone for their respective what-could-have-been moments.

Maryland went 0-2 on a mid-January road trip, blowing a 17-point second-half lead at Miami before falling in overtime at Florida State three days later. Terrapins players have said on several occasions that they should have won both contests. Maryland also held a 13-point lead in the first half Saturday at Virginia before losing by five.

Virginia Tech lost by one point at Boston College on Jan. 31 after failing to block out Rakim Sanders, who scored on a game-winning putback as time expired. Three weeks later, Florida State guard Toney Douglas hit a runner with 6.2 seconds remaining to hand Virginia Tech a two-point home defeat.

"There's such a fine line between winning and losing in this league," Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg said. "There's such a small margin between being 7-9 and 9-7 [in ACC play]. If you look across the board, it's one stop, one rebound, it's getting to the foul line maybe a little bit earlier in the half. There's such a fine line because there's so much parity."

Indeed, five of the 12 ACC teams finished either 9-7 or 7-9 in conference play this season. Clemson and Boston College went 9-7, and they have all but secured NCAA bids. The three teams in the latter category -- Maryland, Virginia Tech and Miami -- sit on the bubble and must make extended runs this week in order to impress the NCAA tournament selection committee.

Virginia Tech swingman A.D. Vassallo said he occasionally thinks about the little things his team could have done to prevent its current predicament, but such thoughts are no longer of any use.

"It was something we could have controlled, but there's nothing we can do about it now," Vassallo said. "We just have to correct the errors and not let them happen now. Now is a point of the year when none of them errors can come back to beat you."

However, that sentiment might only be true to a certain extent. While Virginia Tech can work on taking better care of the ball (the Hokies possess the third-worst turnover margin in the ACC) and Maryland can improve its execution against zone defenses, neither team can impact games in which it is not involved.

For Maryland forward Dave Neal, that means he'll be spending a lot of his spare time over the next few days monitoring the scores of games he otherwise might not pay much attention.

"These past couple of days, I've been watching a lot of these conference championship games," Neal said. "Being one of those bubble teams, we kind of want all those mid-major teams to win their championships that are supposed to win 'em. We don't want anyone upset. . . . We want all those other number one seeds from the mid-major conferences to win their conference championships because we don't want another team to get in that shouldn't get in."

NCAA tournament at-large bids already have begun to disappear. Cleveland State defeated No. 16 Butler, 57-54, on Tuesday night in the Horizon League tournament title game. The Vikings will claim the league's automatic berth, while Butler seems to be a lock to snatch up one of those precious at-large invitations, possibly the one that would have gone to Maryland or Virginia Tech.

The pressure to win, then, has increased before the ACC tournament has even begun. Hokies players admitted earlier this week to playing tight during their last few regular season games, when the opportunity to secure an NCAA tournament berth presented itself.

"I think everyone who is playing right now that didn't finish the job at the end of the season, the more games you want to play," Greenberg said. "And obviously the more games you win, the more you enhance your résumé, the more you separate yourself from other teams."

On Thursday afternoon, eighth-seeded Virginia Tech will take on ninth-seeded Miami (18-11, 7-9). That night, seventh-seeded Maryland will face 10th-seeded North Carolina State (16-13, 6-10). Both the Terrapins and Hokies understand that they likely need to win two games and advance to the semifinals, but they also know where their focus must first remain.

"You just worry about N.C. State," Williams said. "There's a lot of scenarios after N.C. State, but there's only one scenario in the first game."

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