Still, Terps have winning disposition

February 28, 1997|By JOHN EISENBERG

DURHAM, N.C. -- The Maryland Terrapins lost for the sixth time in nine games last night, which sounds pretty bad.

They committed a season-high 26 turnovers in an 81-69 loss to Duke, which also sounds pretty bad.

But the reality of the Terps' situation isn't quite as bad as it sounds.

Oh, sure, they need to play better and win again one of these days to generate some momentum going into the postseason, which begins next week with the ACC tournament.

They also have lapsed into the habit of finding ways to lose, as opposed to earlier in the season, when they found ways to win.

But the reality is that they aren't playing that badly, and they're still better than most teams.

The reality is that their early-season performance was so strong that they're still assured of winning 20 games, finishing in the middle of the ACC standings in a very tough year and getting a relatively high seed in the NCAA tournament.

In other words, the accounting of their regular season already is set. Losing to Duke last night didn't affect it; they weren't supposed to win, not on Senior Night at Cameron Indoor Stadium. A loss at Virginia on Sunday won't affect the Terps' standing, either.

This was still a surprise season for them. A good season.

No, it wasn't as good as it could have been when they were 17-2 and ranked No. 5 in the country, but still, all things considered, it was pretty successful.

How their season will be painted, overall, depends now on what happens in the NCAA tournament, where all reputations are made and lost.

If the Terps go out in the first round of the NCAAs, as they did a year ago, they will be remembered as a team that promised a lot and petered out pretty badly.

If they win their first-round game and lose in the second round, they will be remembered as a team that had a surprisingly successful season and sank to their level in the end.

If they win two games and advance to the Sweet 16, they'll be remembered for having a terrific season, one that was far better than anyone ever expected.

If they win two games and advance to the Sweet 16, they will make everyone forget that they struggled down the stretch of the regular season.

And the reality is that the Terps' chances of advancing to the Sweet 16 aren't bad at all, despite what their results of the past month might indicate.

For starters, they're going to get a high seed, perhaps as high as a No. 4, and that assures them of an easy first-round game.

No, losing all these games late in the season won't change their seeding. Remember, the Terps lost 12 games and barely made it into the tournament field a year ago, yet they still drew a No. 7 seed because they play in the ACC.

If they were a No. 7 last year, they're a No. 4 this year.

And let's face it, the reality is that few other teams in the country are capable of supplanting the Terps as a high seed. Because, as bad as their losing streak looks, remember that they're playing in the toughest conference in the country by far.

"This is my eighth year in the ACC, and it's the toughest it's been, top to bottom," Maryland coach Gary Williams said last night. "Unlike in other leagues, you don't have that luxury of playing the one or two games you know you can win."

Other leagues are marked by such easy games; the college game, circa 1997, is loaded with teams that simply can't play.

In that watered-down world, the Terps are assured of standing taller than most simply for having won nine games in ACC play.

It's a major accomplishment that warrants a high seed.

"Maryland is still one of the best teams in the country," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said last night. "They played their hearts out tonight."

It's true. Although the Terps were embarrassingly sloppy with the ball in the first half, when they committed 18 turnovers, and they succumbed in the end to Duke's three-point shooting, they competed hard on a night when the gym was a sauna and Duke was playing for a share of the conference title.

"That was an intense game," Krzyzewski said. "Between the heat and the emotion, I'm exhausted."

It was not the night for the Terps to fix whatever it is that has ailed them lately, and yet they still were tied with 10 minutes to play.

"I don't think we're playing that badly," Williams said. "We have to do a couple of things better. And we have to play 40 minutes consistently. That's what we were getting earlier in the season. But things change quickly. We'll try to get it back on Sunday."

Sunday's game at Virginia also is pretty meaningless, although, again, the Terps could stand to win again just to prove to themselves that they know how.

But a loss Sunday won't devastate them. A loss Sunday won't mean much.

The Terps already have written the headline on their regular season. They're just fleshing out the details.

How they fare in the NCAA tournament is the unknown factor.

The unknown factor that, in the end, will determine how this team is remembered.

Pub Date: 2/28/97

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