ACC no afterthought to Terps this time

Higher seed in NCAA play is rooted in next 3 days

Acc Tournament

March 14, 2003|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

GREENSBORO, N.C. - A year ago, the scenario looked so different when the University of Maryland came to play in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. Regardless of how they performed, the Terrapins knew they already had secured a trip to the East Regional as the school's first-ever top seed in NCAA tournament history.

One year after losing in the conference tournament semifinals, then rolling to their first NCAA championship, 14th-ranked Maryland has something far more tangible to shoot for - besides the chance to win the school's first official league crown since 1984 and only the third in the ACC's 50 years.

How the second-seeded Terps acquit themselves at Greensboro Coliseum this weekend - starting with tonight's quarterfinal test against No. 7 seed North Carolina - could weigh significantly on their 10th consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.

Senior guard Drew Nicholas has done the math. He sees Maryland (19-8) emerging as high as a No. 3 seed or as low as a No. 5 seed, depending on its ACC tournament showing.

To win the tournament and possibly earn a third seed and avoid a trip out West, the Terps most likely would have to beat Duke in tomorrow's semifinals - ending the Blue Devils' streak of four consecutive conference tournament titles - then take down top-seeded Wake Forest in the championship game. Maryland has only played in the ACC final once since 1984.

"Now is the time to do it. It's time to play well. It's that time of the year," said Nicholas, still stung by Sunday's regular-season finale at Virginia, where Maryland got out-rebounded, 59-36, saw its frontcourt badly outplayed, and dropped an 80-78 overtime decision that interrupted its momentum.

"If our big men aren't there, we've seen what can happen. Everybody needs to get it done, including myself. We can't get out-rebounded by 23 the rest of the year. Once that happens, our season is over. I'm playing college basketball, heading into probably the biggest three or four weeks of my life. What is it to put 100 percent out on the floor?"

Maryland coach Gary Williams, who has never won an ACC tournament, says he thinks the Terps learned another valuable lesson during a season in which they have been steady enough to assemble a pair of five-game winning streaks and finish second in the conference, yet inconsistent enough to get swept by sixth-place Virginia.

In Williams' eyes, it's nothing that more effort and better shooting and rebounding in the post from players like centers Ryan Randle and Jamar Smith and forward Tahj Holden can't cure.

"When we get the ball inside, we have to score inside, and we have to get off the floor and go after the ball. We don't have to do things differently, just do them better," Williams said. "I think we got spoiled last year. We were a really consistent team. This year, we're like a lot of other college teams, not as consistent. But I'd be shocked if we didn't play great [tonight]."

Maryland fully expects to control the Tar Heels (16-14), and with good reason. The Terps are bigger, deeper, much more experienced, and they recently pounded Carolina, 96-56, marking the worst beating the Tar Heels have ever taken as ACC members. Maryland swept the regular-season series by a combined 55 points, and is going for its first five-game winning streak against the Tar Heels in 81 years.

"We're going to be fired up, because we want to win this game so bad. We don't need someone to beat us by 40 to get us fired up," said Terps senior point guard Steve Blake, who has shot just 3-for-17 the past two games.

"I'm taking this tournament very seriously. We definitely have the parts to win it, if we all come to play and play hard at the same time. This could change some things for us and definitely have an impact for us in our next season."

Winning the ACC tournament would add one more impressive line to Williams' resume. He has won 500 games, been to back-to-back Final Fours, won an NCAA title and is on the verge of guiding Maryland to its seventh consecutive 20-victory season.

Not that Williams places too much emphasis on the conference tournament. Never has, unless he was coaching a squad that had to win it to gain an automatic national tournament berth.

"We're down here to win as many games as we can. Obviously, we want to win the tournament," Williams said. "Even though it might be antiquated, the tournament winner is the official champion. I personally think three months [of play] has more to do with it than three days. But I don't think I've ever coached a game without trying to win it.

"We can elevate our seeding, but I don't know by how much. The [NCAA selection] committee is going to make the decision on that. When you finish second in the ACC, you deserve a pretty good seed. The ACC tournament is something you'd like to win. I won't slit my wrists if we don't win it. I almost did after the Virginia game."

Terps tonight

Matchup: No. 14 Maryland (19-8) vs. North Carolina (16-14) in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament quarterfinals

Site: Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum

Time: 7

TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)

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