Terps have eyes on the prize

Maryland is looking to win ACC tourney for first time since 1984

March 10, 2000|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There has been a tendency to dismiss many of Maryland's losses this basketball season by rationalizing that the game meant more to the opponent.

George Washington wanted to knock off the best team inside the Capital Beltway. N.C. State needed to win the first Atlantic Coast Conference game in its new arena. North Carolina could not afford a historic fifth straight loss. Virginia was desperate for a quality win that would boost its chances to get into the NCAA tournament.

"In a lot of our games, the other team has had an emotional boost, reason to play as hard as they can," Terps' reserve Mike Mardesich said. "In a situation like this, for us, every game is like that. It's hard to play someone when their back is against the wall, but in this situation, the playing field is pretty even."

The "situation" is the single-elimination format that makes the postseason so compelling. The Terps are the No. 2 seed in the ACC tournament, but if they aren't prepared to play up to their normal standard today (2: 30 p.m.) against Florida State at the Charlotte Coliseum, they might have to pack up and leave the party early.

Win, and No. 20 Maryland (22-8) will advance to tomorrow's semifinals and keep alive its quixotic quest to win its first ACC tournament since 1984. If the date connotes an impersonal future in George Orwell fiction, it's a reminder of the bleak drought the Terps have had on Tobacco Road in March.

Steve Blake, the freshman point guard who piloted Maryland to a school single-season record nine straight wins in the ACC, was 4 the previous time the Terps won the ACC tournament. For his part, coach Gary Williams insisted he didn't know that was also the previous time Maryland reached the championship game.

"That has nothing to do with this year," said Williams, whose teams have lost in the semifinals the past five years. "It clouds the issue."

If the issue is motivation, there are as many sources of it here as there are teams.

Duke wants to defend its title. North Carolina can make amends for a listless regular season. Virginia needs to beat N.C. State today to assure itself of a pleasant Selection Sunday, while the Wolfpack's only way into the NCAA tournament would be as the ACC champion.

Maryland?

Its sole impetus is winning the ACC tournament. The Terps are a given for their seventh straight bid to the NCAAs, and it's probably too late to improve their seed there. Even if Maryland were to run the table and beat Duke in Sunday's championship game, the Terps still might be stuck on a No. 4 seed, because the NCAA is not in the habit of tearing up its bracket that late in the process.

For the second straight year, Maryland will open the tournament against Florida State, the seventh seed which advanced with a 63-62 victory over Georgia Tech. The Terps enjoy an eight-game win streak -- their longest against an ACC opponent -- over the Seminoles (11-17). Maryland began its nine-game ACC roll with a 19-point win in Tallahassee, and won their meeting at Cole Field House by 15.

"They come at you hard, and that's why they didn't have to play tonight," Florida State coach Steve Robinson said of Maryland. "Our guys need to go to bed and get some rest as soon as we get out of here."

It's doubtful the Seminoles' legs will last on 17 hours of rest against Maryland, which boasts three players with all-ACC credentials. Junior forward Terence Morris earned that honor last year, and sophomores Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter emerged as conference stars this season.

Since last Saturday's overtime loss at Virginia, Williams and his players said they have focused on honing their own edges rather than fretting about whom they would play today. They took off Sunday, had a hard practice Monday, lifted Tuesday and traveled after Wednesday's workout at Cole Field House.

Maryland practiced at UNC-Charlotte yesterday morning, then had a light-hearted shoot- around during the hour it was allotted on the Coliseum floor. The Terps aren't looking to do anything new -- except play here Sunday for a change.

"A lot is at stake for us," Morris said. "We've had such a great season, but this is the second part of it, and we don't want to go home. We want to get on a roll before we go to the NCAA tournament."

ACC tournament

Today's second round

North Carolina (18-12) vs.

Wake Forest (16-13), noon

Maryland (22-8) vs.

Fla. State (12-16), 2: 30 p.m.

Virginia (19-10) vs.

N.C. State (16-11), 7 p.m.

Nitty-Gritty' on Terps

The men's basketball committee that selects the at-large teams and seeds the 64-team field for the NCAA tournament considers 17 factors, what it calls the "Nitty-Gritty." Two factors are subjective -- advisory rankings made by coaches and injuries that may have affected a team's performance -- but the other 15 can be quantified.

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