CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - Their backs are not yet planted against the wall, but the wriggle room is growing smaller for the Maryland Terrapins.
The mission for 13th-ranked Maryland is clear. Reverse the worst stretch of basketball the Terps have played since stumbling to a 1-3 start in November. Regain the confidence that has been drained during the season's most trying two weeks. Revive the belief that Maryland belongs in the hunt for a national championship.
And what a roadblock the Terps must negotiate today in the top-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels.
Under first-year coach Matt Doherty, the Tar Heels (20-2, 10-0) are standing atop the Atlantic Coast Conference with a 17-game winning streak and have not lost since Dec. 2. They boast possibly the premier player in the conference in guard Joseph Forte. They shoot, rebound, defend and win close games. They are the only ACC team to knock off Duke.
Maryland (15-7, 6-4) has dropped three of its past four games, beginning with that overtime heartbreaker at home to Duke two weeks ago. That led to disastrous outings on the road against Virginia and unranked Georgia Tech, which outlasted a tentative and poor-shooting Terps squad Tuesday night, 72-62.
The Terps, who are maintaining a tenuous hold on third place in the ACC, are trying to avoid their first 1-4 stretch since the end of the 1996-97 season. They have beaten only one ranked team in six tries, including an 86-83 loss to Carolina in College Park one month ago. They are slipping toward the league's second division. Suddenly, matching last year's total of 25 wins with a team that returned all five starters looks like a monumental task.
"It all depends on how you want to look at it," Terps coach Gary Williams said. "We didn't do a good job of getting ready for that [Georgia Tech] game, and we haven't played well. But we're the third-place team in the ACC.
"The two teams in front of us [Carolina and Duke] are No. 1 and No. 3 in the country. Put anybody else in the country in this league and see where they'd be. The way we look at it, the glass is half-full. We can turn this around. We know we can play down there [at Carolina]."
Williams has a point. Maryland has won three times in its past five visits to the Dean Smith Center, a better stretch than any other team in the land. The last time the Terps won in Chapel Hill was on Jan. 14, 1998. That marked then-coach Bill Guthridge's first loss as Carolina's head coach and ended a 17-game winning streak.
Doherty has yet to lose a conference game in his first year at the helm and goes for his 18th straight win today. Oh, yeah, and that Guthridge team also was ranked No. 1 at the time. Maryland has beaten the nation's top-ranked team on six occasions overall. Four of those six takedowns have come at the Tar Heels' expense.
But if Maryland intends to repeat history, it had better reverse some recent trends in a major way.
"There are a lot of little things we have to fix," said sophomore Tahj Holden, who has struggled the past three games after producing his best performance against Duke. "We've been missing shots all year we normally make. We get our hands on the ball, but we don't get the rebound. We make careless turnovers. We're kind of wondering what's going on."
Maryland basically has been a brushfire waiting to happen. The Terps have struggled with their shooting. In their past two games, Maryland has shot 40.5 percent from the floor.
Senior forward Terence Morris, their most productive player since early January, took over a 69-54 victory against Clemson last Sunday and tried to do the same at Georgia Tech. But his 4-for-17 showing highlighted a Maryland offense that missed eight of its last 25 shots in Atlanta.
Guard Juan Dixon shot well there, but had missed 16 of his 20 three-point attempts in his previous four games. The Terps had been a good ball-handling team pretty much all year. They crumbled against Georgia Tech with a season-high 23 turnovers. They have been more aggressive getting to the foul line, but stagnated in the face of the Yellow Jackets' 2-3 zone and shot eight free throws to Georgia Tech's 32.
They figure to see more zone defense today, with 7-foot center Brendan Haywood presenting another matchup problem for Lonny Baxter, who has been noticed mostly for his persistent foul trouble and lack of quality shots lately.
The Terps, meanwhile, talk as if a victory today would make all of their recent pain go away. And they are right. A victory also pretty much would put them in their eighth consecutive NCAA tournament next month. And if you think the players aren't peeking a little toward March, listen to Dixon.
"There is no way we should be 6-4 in the ACC right now. We're a better team than that," he said. "If we don't get it together soon, we'll be home in March after the ACC tournament."
Opponent: North Carolina
Site: Dean E. Smith Center, Chapel Hill, N.C.
Time: 1 p.m.
TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 9/WBAL (1090 AM)
Rankings: Maryland No. 13; North Carolina No. 1
Records: Maryland 15-7, 6-4 ACC; North Carolina 20-2, 10-0 ACC