-- As the Maryland Terrapins approach the most important part of their season, they are strikingly vulnerable, having played poorly and without emotion in losing their past two games.
Entering Friday night's first-round game against 11th-seeded North Carolina Wilmington (24-6), the sixth-seeded Terrapins are seeking to regain the enthusiasm and passion they lacked in losses to Virginia and North Carolina, attributes that could turn them into serious threats to retain their crown.
"It's real easy to say we can be in the Final Four or we could be out Friday night," Maryland forward Tahj Holden said. "We think we're going to be contenders in this tournament. We have the ability [but] we haven't shown it the past two weeks."
That's why a second-round date with third-seeded Xavier or 14th-seeded Troy State on Sunday seems as distinct a possibility as a flight home on Saturday morning.
Since losing to North Carolina in the ACC tournament, the Terrapins (19-9) have had their best practices in quite some time. They have gone hard, played more five-on-five and, according to players, have regained their confidence while Coach Gary Williams stressed getting the ball inside and getting out in transition.
"We really feel we've gotten back up to the level we have to have," guard Drew Nicholas said. "For the most part, we feel if we come out and play our style of basketball, with the intensity we need, we're a tough team to beat.
"We've shown how good we can be when everybody is playing. We just have to step up and play."
While Williams would not identify any individual players who need to perform better, there is little question that struggling center Ryan Randle must get back on track. Randle, a third-team all-ACC selection, has averaged 6.7 points and three rebounds in the Terrapins' past three games, prevented from finding any sort of rhythm by foul trouble or more aggressive opponents.
"That's not the way I usually play," said Randle, who will be guarded Friday mainly by shorter opponents. "I hit a wall. I think I'm going to get out of that."
Perhaps part of Maryland's struggles can be attributed to its inactivity in recent weeks. While coaches and players prefer to get into a routine of playing every third day or so, Friday's game will be just the third in 19 days for the Terrapins. While that might have knocked the team out of kilter, it could prove to be an asset by allowing the players to be fresh at a time of the season when many are dragging.
"I hope so, because it didn't help us," Williams said. "I hope it did some good.
"We lost our edge a little bit, no doubt about it. Now we have it back. Things change about 6:30 the [selection] Sunday night of the NCAA tournament, because that's where you want to be."
UNC Wilmington is 1-23 against opponents from the ACC, including a 74-36 loss to Maryland during the 1997-98 season in the teams' only previous meeting.
However, the Seahawks are in the tournament for the third time in four seasons and say they are in position to pull off another upset, having toppled Southern California in the first round of last season's tournament. UNC Wilmington is led by guard Brett Blizzard, the two-time Colonial Athletic Association player of the year, but will be without guard Tim Burnette, who averages 11 points per game but has been suspended for violating unspecified team rules.
"You can't make up for somebody like that," Blizzard said. "Other guys are going to have to step up. It should be exciting for the other guys, they get to play more minutes. They have a chance to play in one of the biggest games of the year and should come in confident."