Tracee Hamilton - Sports Columnist

Just playing good teams isn't good enough

Corey Fisher, left, Maurice Sutton, right, and third-ranked Villanova were too much for Maryland at Verizon Center.
Corey Fisher, left, Maurice Sutton, right, and third-ranked Villanova were too much for Maryland at Verizon Center. (Tracy A Woodward/The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
By Tracee Hamilton
Monday, December 7, 2009

Well, there went Maryland's last chance to pick up a quality win before the ACC season begins. The Terps needed a victory against a Cincinnati or a Wisconsin or a Villanova in November and December. Instead, they lost to all three, including Sunday's 95-86 defeat at the hands of the No. 3 Wildcats.

If the rest of December and early January unfold as scripted, Maryland will have an 11-3 nonconference record. You don't need an advanced degree to know that that means a 9-7 ACC record is a must. And that likely will necessitate an upset or two of the conference's glam teams. Remember when Maryland was one of them?

The Terps earned a No. 10 seed in the NCAA tournament last season at least in part because of their Thanksgiving weekend win over then-No. 5 Michigan State. Maryland will have no such nonconference victory on which to hang its hat this Selection Sunday. So now the work begins.

For Gary Williams, this is about as good as it gets. Williams is at his best when he has a windmill at which to tilt. Athletic Director Debbie Yow often fills that role. But let's face it, Williams faces little job pressure this season. His football counterpart, Ralph Friedgen, kept his job this season despite a 2-10 record, largely because the price tag to get rid of him was too high. It's hard to imagine what Williams would have to do to earn a pink slip; merely failing to make the NCAA tournament field won't do it.

Which is good news for Williams's fans. Since winning the national championship in 2002, the Terps have failed to make the tournament three times in seven seasons. That's clearly not what Maryland is looking for from its basketball program. The school is trying desperately to be relevant in both the major-revenue sports and finding itself, instead, relevant in neither.

Which is good news, in a weird way, for Williams himself. He has always done his best work with his back against the wall, when he feels the world is out to get him. Luckily for Williams -- and Maryland -- he feels that way quite often. Sometimes, he's right. Last season, Williams used rumors of his impending departure brilliantly. The Terps rallied around Williams' upraised pregame fist; Williams himself reveled in the pro-Gary T-shirt campaigns and chants. Yow was forced to give him the dreaded vote of confidence, making him the ultimate Rebel Without a Cause. So at any point Yow can probably dial up a victory or two with a dirty look or a well-placed remark.

Perhaps Yow was the missing ingredient in Maui; she didn't make the trip and thus missed losses to Cincinnati and Wisconsin. At any rate, today all Maryland has to show for its early season efforts are victories over Charleston Southern, Fairfield, New Hampshire, Chaminade and Indiana -- and the last time beating the Hoosiers was a big image-enhancer was when résumés were painstakingly produced on Selectrics. As a result of this unimpressive lineup, Maryland's RPI before Sunday didn't land it among the top 65 teams in the country.

Upcoming opponents before ACC play begins include Eastern Kentucky, Winston-Salem State, Florida Atlantic, William & Mary and North Carolina Greensboro, with Longwood tucked into the mid-January schedule like a lemon sorbet. Not a lot of RPI pop to be found on that list, either.

Or is there?

"William & Mary beat Wake Forest, so they're pretty good," Williams said when asked if he would like more top 25-caliber opponents before the ACC season begins. "We've played Cincinnati, Wisconsin, Indiana on the road, and Villanova. Not many teams play that many, so we've played enough."

Played, but not beaten. Winning Sunday night would have been a real boost, but also a tall order. The Wildcats improved to 8-0 behind stellar three-point shooting.

In the second half Villanova looked merely human, and the Terps cut the deficit to three before the Wildcats pulled away.

That leaves the Terps without that quality win and entering the long ACC season without another threat, real or imagined, for Williams to use as a spark for himself or his team. Except William & Mary.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company