In its first four games this season, the Maryland men's basketball team has proven it can come back from significant deficits. Now, the challenge is for the Terrapins to avoid those deficits.
It will not be easy Friday night, when 24th-ranked Maryland plays Notre Dame in the consolation game of the Preseason NIT at Madison Square Garden. Unlike the first three games of the season, which were at home, and Wednesday's emotional game against Kentucky, Friday's game is almost an undercard for the main event, No. 8 Arizona playing No. 11 Kentucky for the tournament championship.
"It's a concern," Maryland Coach Gary Williams said. "But you have to learn how to do that. It's not just learning how to run an offense or learning to play defense. You have to learn as a group to do that, and approach a game and show up and be ready to go when they throw the ball up. We haven't started well in some games. We have to do a better job obviously."
Twice in four games, Maryland has faced a double-figure deficit in the first half. Against Tulane, Maryland erased a 22-point deficit and rallied for a 78-70 victory. On Wednesday, the Terrapins trailed by eight points less than five minutes into the game. After their deficit ballooned to 16 points, they rallied but never took the lead in a 61-58 loss to Kentucky.
The Terrapins (3-1) skipped the annual Thanksgiving Day parade down Broadway to practice this morning. Among the topics discussed were getting off to a quick start against Notre Dame, but Williams said there is no specific way to prepare.
"It's something you can only talk about," he said. "It's not like you can go practice a play. We talk about and make sure we're ready to play. Hopefully, we'll do a better job. . . . With this year's team, each step is an experience."
Williams said he thought that playing three freshmen and several other players in new roles in their first big game and first game away from Cole Field House might have had something to do with having four turnovers and 2-of-7 shooting in the first 5 1/2 minutes. But some players said they thought the team was not emotionally into the game at the outset.
"We just kind of came out flat," reserve freshman shooting guard Drew Nicholas said in a nearly silent locker room after Wednesday's loss. ". . . In games like this, we just can't come out flat. We can't come out and get down and expect to come back. We did, but sometimes when you come back like that and give all that effort to come back, you don't have enough."
Friday's game promises to be different. Notre Dame (3-1) will not be able to play the kind of defense that Kentucky did. The Wildcats used 6-foot-9 Tayshaun Prince and 6-5 Keith Bogans to defend Maryland's shorter shooters or played a 3-2 zone with Prince at the point, limiting Maryland's perimeter play.
The Fighting Irish do not have comparable size. Notre Dame's tallest player is 6-9 standout forward Troy Murphy, and the Irish played mostly zone defense in their 76-60 loss to Arizona on Wednesday. If they play a similar zone again Friday, shooting guard Juan Dixon and Nicholas should be able to get open shots. The two were a combined 5 of 24 against Kentucky.
Also, Notre Dame does not have the tall, bulky post players that Kentucky did, which should make things easier for Maryland to score inside.
Perhaps the best thing for Maryland to come out of Wednesday's loss was that junior forward Terence Morris asserted himself offensively for the first time this season. In the second half, with Maryland struggling to a 10-point deficit, Morris was responsible for 10 of 14 points as the Terrapins got back into the game.
"We just had to get him the ball and tell him to go," Williams said. "We were able to get him the ball."
Though Maryland and Notre Dame played annually for 14 consecutive seasons, the teams have not met since the final matchup of that series in the 1987-88 season, the year before Williams became Maryland's coach. Notre Dame leads the series, 8-7.
CAPTION: Keith Bogans draws foul from Maryland's Steve Blake on drive. Kentucky won, 61-58, on Wednesday in the Preseason NIT, the Terrapins' first loss.