COLLEGE PARK -- Maryland is planting seeds that could bear some sweet spring fruit.
Fifteen days before Selection Sunday, the Terps face a test that could have serious ramifications on what numbers will precede their name during the college basketball postseason. When No. 19 Maryland meets North Carolina at Cole Field House today, the Terps can accomplish much more than avenge their only Atlantic Coast Conference loss of the past six weeks.
Maryland has won seven consecutive ACC games since that 75-63 setback at North Carolina, and the Terps have never won eight straight in a season. They probably can't help but notice that the streak has them on the verge of locking up the second seed for the ACC tournament, but coach Gary Williams, Juan Dixon and company are sticking to the one-at-a-time party line.
"I wouldn't say that," Williams replied, when asked about his team's having inside position on the ACC's No. 2 seed, behind Duke. "We're guaranteed fourth. That's what we've done so far. That's the only status we have."
True, but consider the dominoes that would fall into place if Maryland (20-7, 9-4) were to beat North Carolina (17-10, 8-5) for the third straight year at Cole.
Win, and Maryland would continue to bolster the finishing touch -- a team's record in its final 10 games -- that the NCAA weighs when it seeds teams. If the Terps continue their surge, they figure to get a top-four seed in the NCAAs for the third straight year.
Win, and Maryland could clinch the second seed in the ACC tournament in Wednesday's home finale against Florida State. Even if the Terps were then to lose at Virginia and both finished 11-5, the tiebreaking procedure would favor Maryland, on the basis of its epochal win at Duke on Feb. 9.
Win, and Maryland could send North Carolina toward its first finish below third in the ACC since 1965. More importantly, that would place the Tar Heels in the other half of the draw in the ACC tournament, no small matter in an atmosphere in which North Carolina has been Maryland's nemesis.
Want to know why Williams has been complaining since December about the tournament having been held in Charlotte or Greensboro since he started coaching Maryland? He's 1-7 against Tobacco Road teams in the ACC tournament. The Terps have been stopped in the semifinals of the ACC tournament the past five years, and three of those losses were to North Carolina.
Last year's upset loss to the Tar Heels cost Maryland the No. 1 seed in the West Region, and instead led them to a Sweet 16 game in the South against St. John's, which won by causing the Terps matchup problems.
This Maryland team's only loss in its past eight games came at Temple, which earlier this week knocked Cincinnati from the No. 1 ranking. The Terps have developed a resourcefulness that has allowed them to handle every challenge that has come their way in the ACC since Jan. 27, when they meekly bowed at North Carolina.
The game was delayed a day by a winter storm, and the Smith Center floor was ringed with students for a change. But Maryland lost that game in the paint, not on the road or in the stands. The Terps launched 27 three-pointers, and sophomore center Lonny Baxter attempted two shots in the second half, when his only basket came on a put-back.
The outcome ended a four-game losing streak for North Carolina. It was the Tar Heels' best win of the season, and led to maybe the most significant practice of the Terps' campaign. The next day in Tallahassee, Fla., an angry Williams reiterated the necessity of running the half-court offense from the inside out.
"I was more upset when we were 2-4 [after the North Carolina loss] than I was when we were 0-3," Williams said. "I don't think we played particularly well, for whatever reason. We really jacked them up [three-pointers], for whatever reason."
The inside emphasis has allowed Maryland to make 51.4 percent of its field-goal attempts during its ACC win streak and forced opponents to pick their defensive poison.
Junior forward Terence Morris is shooting 41.9 percent in conference games, but that is partly a result of the respect teams have paid him. Must Baxter be double-teamed? His emergence has opened the way for the Terps to make 46.5 percent of their three-pointers during the streak. What to do about Dixon, the sophomore from Calvert Hall who has won the past two ACC Player of the Week awards?
The matchup between Baxter and mercurial Brendan Haywood probably isn't as important as the one at the point. Ed Cota has 962 career assists, but freshman Steve Blake is a different player than the one who allowed the Terps to lose their way in Chapel Hill last month.
With a warm front sending temperatures into the 70s yesterday, Williams asked about the forecast, and predicted that Cole would be even steamier than usual.
"Perfect," Williams said.