Bubble trouble?

Enigmatic Terps appear to be definite maybe for NCAA tournament berth after rough week

College Basketball

February 08, 2005|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

If history is any indication, the Maryland men's basketball team can go 4-3 over its final seven regular-season games, and regardless of what happens in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, the Terrapins will make their 12th straight appearance in the NCAA tournament.

Since the 1992 season, 56 of 59 ACC teams with league records of 8-8 or better have gotten a ticket to the Big Dance.

The Terps (13-7 overall) are 4-5 in the league (tied for sixth) entering tonight's game against Virginia Tech. After tonight, home games against Duke (Saturday), Clemson and North Carolina, and road dates at N.C. State, Virginia and Virginia Tech remain.

"Whatever our record is ... we've earned it," said coach Gary Williams, whose Terps were dropped from the rankings after going 0-2 last week and will likely be without key reserve Ekene Ibekwe (cracked rib) for tonight's game. "It doesn't bother me. We still have our league games left to play. You have to worry about that. You can't worry about if somebody says, `You're here or you're there.' I've never worried about those things. If we did, we wouldn't have gotten where we did last year."

Last season, the Terps sported an identical record at the 20-game mark as this year's group, but after being bombarded by talk that they were on the NCAA tournament bubble, Maryland won three of its last four regular-season games and then the ACC tournament.

The Terps' spot in the 65-team tournament field seemed a foregone conclusion about two weeks ago. In a five-day span, they beat then-No. 2 Duke in Durham, N.C., and then returned to College Park to defeat then-No. 22 Georgia Tech.

Their ranking in the Rating Percentage Index, the formula that is used in seeding and selecting teams for the NCAA tournament, rose to 23, making the Terps a seeming shoo-in.

Then the calendar turned to February, and in the past week the Terps were dominated by Clemson, which still sits in last place in the ACC, and beaten in overtime by Miami on Saturday. Their RPI fell to 33. Historically, the majority of teams who had an RPI of 40 or lower receive NCAA tournament invitations, but one RPI analyst suggested that Maryland shouldn't feel too comfortable.

"They played themselves right down into trouble," said Jerry Palm, an analyst for CollegeRPI.com, who nonetheless has the Terps as a ninth seed in his current bracket projections. "But we are still five weeks out, and you have to believe that at some point, some of these ACC teams are going to separate themselves behind the top three."

At the beginning of the season, some pundits predicted that the ACC could send as many as seven teams to the tournament, but right now, only No. 2 North Carolina, No. 6 Wake Forest and No. 7 Duke appear to be locks.

Behind that trio is a logjam, featuring Maryland, Miami, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. The Terps have the best RPI among the group, but final conference standings will likely have a major impact.

"If a team finishes ahead of you and the committee doesn't take them, then you are probably in trouble," said Palm.

That's why a win tonight over Virginia Tech would be huge for the Terps. In their first year in the ACC, the Hokies (12-8) have been one of the league's biggest surprises, but even with a 5-4 league record and a fourth-place standing, they have a 133 RPI and no team even close to that has ever gotten an at-large bid.

The Terps won't get any sympathy from the selection committee for being without sophomore guard D.J. Strawberry (knee) or Ibekwe.

It was initially thought that the sophomore center, who didn't play against Miami and has been ailing for about two weeks, had a back injury, but further tests yesterday discovered that he had cracked a rib. Williams described his condition as "day-to-day," and said he probably won't play tonight.

"If you lose [tonight's] game, the season is not over," said Williams. "Look at last year. We have that to go off of. ... We can still make it happen."

Right now, Maryland has the credentials to potentially make a strong case even without a marquee nonconference win - the Terps hammered then-No. 25 Memphis in late-November, but the Tigers have since been one of this season's biggest disappointments.

No other team has gone into Cameron Indoor Stadium and knocked off Duke, though the Tar Heels figure to have a good shot tomorrow. The Terps also play in the highest-rated conference in both CollegeRPI.com and the Sagarin Computer rankings.

"The good thing for them is they have a lot of company [on the bubble]," said Palm. "Everybody outside the top 25 is in a similar situation. There's a lot of mediocrity."

The schedule seemingly works in the Terps' favor, too. At Comcast Center, where the Terps are 10-1, Maryland is a heavy favorite tonight against Virginia Tech and probably will be again when Clemson comes to town in two weeks. The Terps' road opposition - Virginia Tech, N.C. State and Virginia - is a combined 5-8 at home against ACC foes.

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