Terps' hopes punctured, but doubt yet to seep in

Players remain confident UM will secure NCAA bid

February 24, 2005|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Some of the Maryland Terrapins looked defeated. Others remained defiant. But one emotion that wasn't outwardly prevalent in the Terps' locker room after Tuesday's night's 97-93 home loss to Clemson was doubt.

The Terps, who were seemingly more down after the game than they've been at any time this season, couldn't explain such a poor effort in such a big game. Neither coach Gary Williams nor any of his players have an answer to the maddening inconsistency that continues to define Maryland's season.

But there was one thing that Maryland (16-9, 7-7 Atlantic Coast Conference) maintained that it is sure of: The Terps will play in a 12th straight NCAA tournament next month.

"We're definitely an NCAA tournament team," said junior forward Nik Caner-Medley, who held his head in his hands after the media vacated his locker after Tuesday night's game. "There's no question about that. We're in the best league in the country. If we were in another league, this conversation wouldn't be going on."

Caner-Medley's comments echoed all over the Terps' locker room.

"I definitely know we'll make the tournament," sophomore center Ekene Ibekwe said.

"We're going to get a couple of more wins," point guard John Gilchrist vowed.

After dropping the ball on several opportunities to all but clinch a tournament berth, Maryland likely will need to win one of its remaining two regular-season games or be forced to make an ACC tournament run.

"We shouldn't put ourselves in a position like this, but it's too late now," said junior forward Travis Garrison. "We're already in that position. It's not going to be easy, but it's something we have to do."

In losing at home to Clemson, the last-place team in the ACC, the Terps' Rating Percentage Index dropped 10 spots from 22 to 32. No team with an RPI of 33 or better has been denied an at-large bid to the tournament, though the formula has been altered slightly this year.

The key for the Terps is to get that eighth ACC win and finish regular-season league play with a .500 record. Only three teams since 1992 with ACC marks of 8-8 or better have failed to make that tournament.

And that means Maryland will need to beat No. 2 North Carolina (23-3, 11-2) on Sunday at home or surprising Virginia Tech (14-10, 7-6) in Blacksburg, Va., on March 5.

The Tar Heels, who handled N.C. State on Tuesday without Rashad McCants (illness), dismantled the Terps by 34 points in Chapel Hill in early January. The Hokies are 11-3 at home this season, including a win over Duke.

Jerry Palm, an RPI analyst, said the Terps would be in "decent shape" if they win one of their next two games and a shoo-in if that victory is an upset of Carolina. But if they lost both?

"They would be in trouble. ... They may have to win the ACC tournament. They may have to beat a good team in the tournament," Palm said. "It depends on other teams. You really don't know."

The Terps are tied with Miami for fifth place in the ACC. If those teams finish deadlocked, the Terps would lose the tiebreaker with the Hurricanes, who won the head-to-head matchup earlier this month.

If the Terps cannot secure a top-five seed in the ACC tournament, they would need to win four games in as many days to repeat as league champs. And perhaps just as alarming for Maryland is that Clemson, which swept the season series, could be a potential first-round opponent.

"I don't worry about that. I worry about the next game," Williams said in a terse postgame address late Tuesday night.

Several Terps admitted that they are worried about chemistry issues involving the team. Ekene Ibekwe called the team's effort against Clemson "baffling."

"We have to look and see things that we need to do as a team, on and off the court," Ibekwe said. "We just have to see where everybody's at. We're a team. We have to play as a unit. That's the bottom line."

Gilchrist has come to symbolize the up-and-down Terps. In seven ACC wins, the junior is averaging 17 points a game on 42 percent shooting, 7.6 rebounds and 7.1 assists. In seven ACC losses, he is averaging 10.1 points on 33 percent shooting, 4.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists.

"It's definitely tough when you have up-and-down times like this and you are one of the main reasons that the blame is being put upon," Gilchrist said. "It's hard on everybody. Everybody is getting the criticism. I'm just trying to deal with it the best way I can.

"It's just a lot of expectations," he added. "We're fighting things you can't even see. You can just tell on each and every guy. We are trying to make things right."

Next for Maryland

Matchup: No. 2 North Carolina (23-3, 11-2) vs. Maryland (16-9, 7-7)

Site: Comcast Center, College Park

When: Sunday, 5:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)

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