Pretenders or contenders? Next test will tell Terps' tale

March 09, 2007|By RICK MAESE

TAMPA, Fla. — TAMPA, Fla.-- --This loss settled in eerily. The Maryland men's basketball team hit the locker room and a switch had been flipped - the frustration changed instantly to confusion.

Players were tossing around theories as though anything was possible - maybe the Terps overlooked Miami, maybe they were buying into the media hype, maybe they just didn't want it badly enough. What was clear is that no one really knew what had just happened, why one of the nation's hottest teams could lose its Atlantic Coast Conference tournament opener so embarrassingly, 67-62, to Miami, the league's worst team.

The Terps don't doubt their abilities and potential, but this was the first loss where players were asking themselves the same question that outsiders were posing to their coach.

"How will we react?" freshman Greivis Vasquez said. "That will be the biggest question about Maryland."

And as the Terps return home early, they'll do everything possible to find the answer before the NCAA tournament begins next week. And you can bet that means coach Gary Williams' biggest task in the next few days has little to do with X's and O's.

This time of year is an interesting one for a college basketball coach. He's essentially a plate spinner with a whistle, running from dish to dish, trying to figure out what he needs to do to keep a dozen plates balanced, spinning perfectly at the same time. Young psyches are fragile and can fall without much notice. Yesterday against Miami, they all seemed to crash at once.

Williams was asked whether his team had a difficult time playing together against the Hurricanes. "We were together all year. We're together now," he responded. "We lost today's game. That's all. I think 31 games is more reflective of our team."

Of course it is, but this is March and the most important game is the next one - and no one knows which Maryland team will show up. The group of Terps that won its final seven games of the regular season? Or the one that played poorly in January and now has two losses to the Hurricanes on its postseason resume?

"We've got a week to fix this, a week to focus and get ready," said senior D.J. Strawberry, visibly upset after the loss, perhaps in part because of his six turnovers. "This has to be the most important thing in our lives right now."

As the first half ended yesterday, Maryland players hit the locker room with their heads hung low, which is probably how they noticed their feet. The Terps debuted shiny red shoes for the ACC tournament - and someone must've remembered that it was ruby slippers that took Dorothy home. Not ready to go home themselves, the Terps discarded the new shoes and came out for the second half wearing the sneakers that had won all those games.

But the problem has nothing to do with their feet. It's the other end that needs work right now. (In fact, with just two minutes remaining against Miami, the Terps were in a one-possession game and the Hurricanes were at the free-throw line. Coming out of a timeout, only four Terps reported into the game, and Williams had to yank Eric Hayes from his seat and push him on the court while the first free throw was in midair.)

There needs to be a renewed focus. Just as they discarded their midseason woes, they have to let go of that late-season run and erase yesterday's mishaps from their memories. (To make it easier, here's a checklist of things to forget from yesterday's loss: the Hurricanes' 23 second-chance points; the Terps' 11 missed free throws and atrocious three-point shooting in the second half; the Hurricanes' 19 offensive rebounds and their 20-5 bench-scoring advantage. There, now forget all that ever happened.).

"It better wake us up," Strawberry said of the early conference tournament exit, "and it better get us refocused."

The good news is that the Terps have already shown that they're up to that task - not just recovering from a loss to Miami, but hitting a valley and forging ahead. It should be even easier this time because the Terps know exactly what's possible and know precisely how great it looks when all of the plates are spinning at the same time.

Entering the ACC tournament, most scenarios would've suited Maryland just fine. The Terps could've won the whole thing - as many expected - and kept riding that wave into the NCAA tournament. Or they could've won just one or two and returned home to rest before the real tournament begins.

But getting trounced in the opening round by Miami was not in the plans, and it has presented an awkward wrinkle. No coach wants to deal with an identity crisis this late in the season, but the Terps have a bit of soul searching to do.

On Sunday, we'll learn their NCAA tournament path, and the next time they set foot on a court, we'll learn a bit more about just who this team is.

Will the real Terps please stand up?

Or will they fall down?

Even they don't seem to know for sure, but the NCAA tournament is right around the corner and we're all going to find out soon enough.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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