COLLEGE PARK -- Before his team took the court against Maryland in late January, Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt said, "This is probably not the night you want to play Maryland.
"They're going to come out here fired up to prove to everyone, `We're going to be fine' " without senior guard Chris McCray, Hewitt recalled yesterday, "but I also said, `As time goes on, it's harder and harder to make up for a loss like that.' "
In both senses, the Terps proved Hewitt right.
Maryland (15-9, 5-6 Atlantic Coast Conference) played one of its most complete games of the season on Jan. 25, handing Georgia Tech (10-13, 3-9) an 86-74 loss in its first game without McCray, who was declared academically ineligible, and earned its only conference road win of the season. Since then, the Terps have gone 1-5, and their chances at a bid to the NCAA tournament are in serious doubt.
The two struggling teams will meet again at 4 p.m. today at Comcast Center having combined to lose 14 of their past 16 games. Earlier this week, when Maryland's team bus pulled into Comcast Center around 3 a.m. after a loss to Clemson, coach Gary Williams said he told his players that they aren't out of it yet.
"The great thing about sports is the bottom line is the team or the individual determines the final outcome," Williams said. "Not what's written or what's said - it's you. I think that's why I like coaching. Because the bottom line is, it's nobody's subjectivity. It's always objective at the end of the season."
Maryland needs three wins to finish .500 in the conference, and today is one of its better chances, as Georgia Tech has lost nine of its past 10 games. Still, Hewitt said his players sense progress.
"We're not kidding ourselves and saying, `We have a chance to turn the whole thing around,' but at the same time, these guys recognize they're college kids playing college basketball, and they're enjoying the moment," he said. "None of us are enjoying the losing, but they're not hanging their heads; They're coming back and trying to get better."
Hewitt has changed his lineup recently to become a stronger defensive team, and it has worked. Junior guard Mario West, who started the first nine games of the season before he was sidelined by turf toe, has started the past three games along with senior Theodis Tarver, who has replaced Jeremis Smith in the starting lineup.
Four of their past five losses have been by a total of 11 points - including a one-point loss at Florida State and a seven-point loss to North Carolina, in which the Yellow Jackets blew a 20-point lead.
Maryland will have to slow Anthony Morrow, who is the second-leading three-point shooter in the ACC and has become Georgia Tech's biggest outside threat. Morrow is shooting 43.8 percent from three-point range - a spot on the court the Terps have consistently struggled to defend.
"That's our test," Williams said, "to see if we can get better defensively.
"We know exactly what they're going to do," he said. "This time of year you know the other team's offense, they know our offense. It's can you shut 'em down?"
The Terps will also have to defend a strong inside game led by sophomore center Ra'Sean Dickey, who has averaged 14.8 points and 6.5 rebounds over his past 11 games.
"I think you have to be careful," Williams said. "Everybody says stop the three - and that's true, we haven't played good three-point defense - but when you get against good inside players, teams make sure you have to respect that also. We'd like to stop Morrow, but we'd like to stop their inside game, also, like we did the first time."
Note -- Williams said junior guards D.J. Strawberry, who was sick at Clemson, and Mike Jones, who had cramps in that game, both practiced at 100 percent this week. "We were concerned because it was in his chest area," Williams said, referring to Strawberry's breathing problems. "He had an EKG just to make sure everything was OK. He was fine." ... One reporter told Williams yesterday, "The turnover bug bit you the last game," referring to the 26 Maryland committed against Clemson. "That wasn't a bug," Williams said. "That was bird flu. When you have 26 turnovers in a game, there's not a lot of things you can do about it. That's 26 times you didn't get a shot off. That gets ugly."