The Maryland Terrapins enter the NCAA tournament having lost their last two games, but after trips to the last two Final Fours, including last year's national title, Coach Gary Williams and his players say their experience could be the key to turning things around and enjoying another successful postseason run.
Among them, Maryland's players have played in 53 NCAA tournament games. Guards Steve Blake and Drew Nicholas, and forward Tahj Holden have each seen action in 13 games -- more than any other players in the field.
Experience in pressure situations, the Terrapins hope, will give them an edge Friday night when they play North Carolina Wilmington in a first-round game in Nashville.
"I definitely have to believe it will" be an advantage, Holden said. "I think our experience will definitely come into play in the tournament in close games."
Williams has spoken to the players about remembering their recent success in the NCAA tournament. Nicholas said that seeing highlights of Maryland's title run last season reminded him of the good feelings created by that success.
"We do have veterans on the team that have won a lot of NCAA tournament games," Williams said. "Hopefully, that experience will really help us in terms of being solid when we walk on the court.
"We're the only team that is the defending national champion. That is a great feeling. I told our players, 'Wear that with pride. They can't take that away from us.' That's not subjective. That's objective."
UNC Wilmington also has the benefit of some experience, playing in the NCAA tournament for the third time in four seasons.
Seahawks Coach Brad Brownell yesterday said that he thinks that having players who have played previously in the tournament was important to his team's upset of Southern California in the first round last season, but that Maryland still has an edge because of its experience. "It's significant, no question," Brownell said. "It's very significant that your guards have played in so many games. Steve Blake and Drew Nicholas, the ball has been in their hands not only in so many games, but in tournament games."
Indiana, which lost to the Terrapins in last season's championship game, is in a situation similar as Maryland. The Hoosiers started strong this season, winning their first eight games and taking a 14-3 record into late January.
Indiana then limped down the stretch, winning only six of its final 15 games entering its first-round game against Alabama, though Crimson Tide Coach Mark Gottfried said the Hoosiers' experience is an asset.
"I think it gives them great confidence to know you won five NCAA tournament games a year ago," Gottfried said. "That gives their players great confidence they can do that again."
In addition to regaining their confidence, Williams said that he wants the Terrapins to make a better effort to get the ball inside on offense and remember that they need to play with more intensity and enthusiasm than they did in recent losses to Virginia and North Carolina.
"You use those games to help yourselves, you learn from those games," Williams said. "Whatever we did wrong, we certainly know what we did wrong and we have to correct that. You can't be oblivious to it but you also know that you've beaten the number one team in the country [Duke in mid-January] and we're ranked number 14 [in last week's Associated Press poll]. . . . I think we're a very good basketball team who didn't play well the last two games of the season."
Williams plans to rely on more than just experience: The coach said that he still has the necktie that he wore in last season's NCAA tournament championship game; the red tie with thin black diagonal stripes will make another appearance.
"You will see that tie at some point," said Williams, who wore the same tie during Maryland's last-second victory over North Carolina State on March 2.