Terps taking a page from the Ravens' storybook

March 01, 2001|By John Eisenberg

IF THE MARYLAND Terrapins' turnaround has you experiencing what Yogi Berra called "deja vu all over again," well, it's no wonder.

The Terps' comeback from the brink of disaster - spell it N-I-T in this case - bears a strong resemblance to the Ravens' rally from midseason misery to Super Bowl glory, a metamorphosis completed just weeks ago.

They're different teams playing different sports, but the arc of their seasons are virtually identical at this point - strong start, alarming slump and unimaginable recovery.

The trademark moments of the Ravens' turnaround were two wins in Tennessee. For the Terps, it was Tuesday night's victory over Duke, the team that sent them into their tailspin.

Whether the Terps can complete their impersonation of the Ravens becomes the issue now, with a school-first trip to the Final Four the minimum requirement. It's hard to imagine with a team given to such dramatic mood swings.

But if anything, the Ravens' comeback illustrated that the unthinkable can become reality, a point Ravens coach Brian Billick stressed when he addressed the Terps before they pounded North Carolina State last week at Cole Field House.

Billick used his favorite line about the Ravens "staring at the abyss" of a five-game run without a touchdown before turning themselves around. As usual, no one asked him what the abyss looked like, or whether Vince McMahon was in charge.

In any case, the Terps haven't lost since, not that we have to give Billick credit for that, too.

No, the Terps themselves deserve the credit for steeling themselves after losing five of six games and watching their Rating Percentage Index ranking fall to No. 61 in the country. Juan Dixon, in particular, has raised his game just when his team really needed it. His amazing story keeps getting better and better.

Quite clearly, the Terps are benefiting from the same mind-set the Ravens encountered after ending a three-game losing streak that almost ruined their season, a mind-set best summed up as "I could give a hoot what anyone else thinks."

Having come about as close as they could to experiencing the worst-case scenario for the season, the Terps are feeling liberated, loosened and freed from the weighty concerns about disappointing those who had expected more. Been there, done that. Nothing to lose now.

Playing to win instead of playing not to lose is a subtle change that makes a lot of difference.

A combination of that mind-set and the Terps' undeniable talent is a potent brew, as was the combination of the Ravens' post-`abyss' mind-set and their league-best defense.

The Terps' RPI is back up to No. 35 after four straight wins, including three over ranked opponents, but anyone who watched them beat Duke knows they're far more dangerous than even that improved rating. Tuesday night's Terps were the powerhouse that warranted a No. 5 national ranking before the season, not the unpredictable curio that has lost several more times than it should.

True, there's no doubt they benefited from the absence of Duke center Carlos Boozer, who injured his foot early in the second half and could miss several weeks, if not the rest of the season, a potentially devastating development for the Blue Devils, who are already dangerously thin. (Boozer probably should just avoid Terps games altogether. First, his mom was hit on the head with a water bottle at Cole Field House in January. Now, this.)

Without Boozer, Duke was reduced to five usable players and the Terps took full advantage of their superior depth, pulling away in the final minutes as the Blue Devils ran out of gas.

It wasn't luck or coincidence that Maryland's Danny Miller came off the bench to make a difference down the stretch - used sparingly until then, he was easily the freshest player on the floor.

But isn't it interesting how any caveats attached to Maryland's success sound similar to those the Ravens heard as they gained momentum in January? Brian Griese's absence and Al Del Greco's kicking misery were deemed critical at the time - much like Boozer's absence - but in the end, it was obvious that the Ravens were just the NFL's best team during the playoffs.

The Terps have a long, long way to go before anyone can start making similar pronouncements about them, of course. Surviving a regular-season nightmare doesn't mean they get to take a pass on their usual postseason crucible. The pressure to get Terps coach Gary Williams past the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament for the first time won't be any less intense, with past disappointments weighing heavy.

If they're going to wade deeper than usual into the NCAA bracket, senior forward Terence Morris certainly will have to deliver more than the 7.8 points he has averaged during the four-game winning streak.

Before the NFL playoffs began, the Ravens' chances were so hard to figure out that, weirdly, the polar extremes of a first-round loss and a Super Bowl victory both seemed realistic. Such is now the case with the Terps, too. A team that loses at home to Florida State could easily fall short of expectations in March, yet a team that wins at Duke obviously is capable of going a long way.

Yes, they're different teams playing different sports, but as the Terps' surprising comeback continues, who isn't thinking about the tantalizing road map the Ravens have drawn?

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