Midway through the season, one thing has become evident about the Maryland men's basketball team: The 22nd-ranked Terrapins lack much of the toughness they had last season when they won a school-record 28 games.
It was particularly apparent Thursday night. Maryland fell to 0-3 on the road in the Atlantic Coast Conference with a 75-63 loss to North Carolina before a spirited crowd made up mostly of students because this week's snowstorm kept many season ticket holders away from Dean E. Smith Center. Maryland Coach Gary Williams said he thinks having a mean streak would be especially useful in helping his players concentrate in road games.
"If [Terrell] Stokes and [Steve] Francis walk out there [Thursday] night in that situation, they would be yelling and pointing at somebody in the stands, I guarantee it," Williams said. "And I would be mad at them for doing it, but at the same time, it would be getting us into the game; whereas [Thursday] night we were trying not to look up and see what they were doing.
"Last year, you just kind of relished walking into some place and just sticking it to somebody," Williams added. "That was our attitude. This year, we are feeling our way instead of saying, 'Get out of my way, here we come.'
"It would have been interesting with last year's team if Carolina would have beaten us down [there] and the fans did the same thing as they did [Thursday, storming the court after the game]. All I'll say is it would have been interesting."
Maryland had a two-hour practice here today. At a team meeting tonight, Williams planned to talk to his players about having intensity and emotion when the Terrapins play Florida State Saturday.
Among other games involving area teams Saturday, Georgetown hosts Rutgers, George Washington hosts La Salle, Colonial Athletic Association-leading George Mason hosts William & Mary and Navy hosts Lehigh.
On Sunday, Virginia, which has been the surprise of the ACC, is at home against Wake Forest. The Cavaliers (14-5, 4-2) are in second place in the conference, behind third-ranked Duke (6-0).
Entering the season, Maryland was expected to be near the top of the ACC, but inconsistent play has left the Terrapins (13-6, 2-4) in a tie for seventh with Georgia Tech. Thursday night's loss has put more pressure on them; a loss Saturday would leave them little margin for error as they try to position themselves for a seventh consecutive NCAA tournament berth.
"It is a big game," Maryland guard Juan Dixon said. "We can be 3-4 or 2-5 [in ACC play], one game closer to a winning record or three games under."
Williams said: "We've got this game here and we have two at home [next week]. Let's go play."
Williams and several players were highly critical of the Terrapins' play in the second half of Thursday night's game. Leading 50-45 with 15 minutes 56 seconds remaining, Maryland made four of its final 22 shots, rarely getting the ball inside against taller defenders.
Defensively, Maryland lacked the intensity it showed in the first half. Dixon even said the Terrapins "did not show up" in the second half. Williams was particularly upset with his front-court players' defense.
"They just backed us in and we did not fight it; they just got us," Williams said. "Size, and if they can dunk it over you, is one thing. But to give up position is not size. That's just not being competitive around the basket. That's two different things."
Williams said he considered moving freshman Tahj Holden into the starting lineup for Saturday's game but decided against it because of the lack of preparation time. Williams hopes that beating the Seminoles (8-9, 3-3) will change the Terrapins' fortunes.
"If we can win one, we will be fine," he said.
Georgetown also is seeking to rebound from a disappointing loss when Rutgers comes to MCI Center. With their 69-64 loss at West Virginia on Wednesday night, the Hoyas (10-5, 2-5 Big East) are one-half game from a four-way tie for last place in the 13-team Big East.
The area's hottest teams are George Mason and Navy, which have risen toward the top of their respective conferences.
George Mason (11-8, 6-2 CAA) has won five consecutive conference games to take a half-game lead over James Madison and Richmond, which play each other on Saturday. However, the Patriots lost to William & Mary, 85-82, on Jan. 5.
Meanwhile, Navy (11-5, 3-1 Patriot League) has won 11 of its past 13 games to jump into the conference race, one game behind Lafayette.