UM can make its NCAA plea, but a berth would be suspect

March 06, 2005|By DAVID STEELE

BLACKSBURG, Va. - Gary Williams didn't look or sound as if he wanted to present an argument for his team's inclusion in the NCAA tournament field next Sunday. He made a stronger case for why his team wasn't winning, didn't win yesterday and won't win anytime soon without a serious attitude adjustment, or the arrival of Juan and Lonny on a white horse.

But he was asked, and he answered.

"The facts are, we beat the [then-No. 2] team in the country on their home court," he said, referring to you-know-who. "We beat the same team when it was in the Top 10 on our court. We beat Memphis when it was 25th in the country. Some teams say [about themselves] they should get in, without those wins.

"To counter that," he continued, "you can say we've had some bad losses. How that works, well see."

Bad losses. Like yesterday's. Line it up against the rest. It's just as bad.

This one hurts Maryland far more than it helps Virginia Tech, even though the campus was in a fairly euphoric state after making it to .500, finishing fourth and earning a first-round tournament bye in the program's inaugural year in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

If there were any justice - and if Maryland and Virginia Tech hit the wall early at MCI Center this week - what both schools "accomplished" this season should earn them a date with each other in the National Invitation Tournament.

Forget the hype about the toughest conference in America. All that adding these two to the NCAA field would mean is that the field of 65 is as watered down as it ever has been.

A few minutes after Williams had spoken, his Virginia Tech counterpart, Seth Greenberg, entered the interview room at Cassell Coliseum and started pitching. He played every card in his hand - the underrated card, the no-respect card, the overcoming-adversity card, even the forget-everything-before-January card.

He also talked of listing the other ACC teams in the same boat as his - Maryland, Miami, Georgia Tech, North Carolina State - on the chalkboard as the game approached and said, "You look at us there, and those other [four] schools are probably looking and going, `Oh my God, what's going on?'"

Williams at least had to be thinking that, at least in the first half yesterday, when his team curled up in the fetal position whenever Virginia Tech had the ball. He took the blame for that, even as he pointed out an indictment of his own guys: "Defense is 75 percent attitude and 25 percent technique."

Ouch.

The Terps didn't play defense, haven't played defense most of the season, almost never play defense on the road. It's an indicator of toughness, to "D" up in a make-or-break season finale in a tough pit of an arena against another team fighting for its postseason life. Yesterday, against a young team with no starters taller than 6 feet 8, they were a sieve.

In the case of NCAA tournament v. Maryland, that's evidence the Terps faithful probably would move to have suppressed. Sorry, counselor, motion denied.

Furthermore, if the decision is based in any way on how a team plays down the stretch, Maryland can stop holding its breath now. Yesterday's game was a battle of which team would have the least-nightmarish finish to its regular season, and by virtue of dropping its third in a row, Maryland beat Virginia Tech to the bottom.

To recap the three weeks after the win over Duke at Comcast Center: blowout loss at North Carolina State, two-overtime win at Virginia, embarrassment at home against Clemson, heartbreaker at home against North Carolina.

And now this, against a team with nowhere to go but up after what might be the most devastating loss by a bubble team in the conference this season, at Clemson on Tuesday on a buzzer-beating breakaway dunk. Had Virginia Tech lost yesterday, the fans might have simply trekked across the street to the football stadium, sat down and waited for spring practice.

Remember, the Hokies also beat Duke last month - and also did nothing special afterward, including yesterday. Who would have thought foundation-quaking wins like that, for either school, would be so devalued so quickly?

The ACC tournament is all the Terps have left now - and it will take more than one win. At least it should. Maryland's reputation around the country is still strong, and Greenberg showered the Terps with praise, if only to pump this win up a few more notches. Meanwhile, Williams was insisting that facts can't be ignored, and there are a couple of shiny, seductive ones in his team's favor.

There also are other facts about this team that the decision makers can smell a mile away.

"It all depends on how the committee feels," Williams said.

If it's feeling anything besides charitable, Maryland is going to get its own feelings hurt.

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