COLLEGE PARK -Hang around Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams long enough, and you begin to understand something: He doesn't mind being in the eye of a storm. In fact, he prides himself on his ability to find calm in the center of chaos.
There is no question that this season has been somewhat chaotic for the Terrapins (16-8, 5-5 Atlantic Coast Conference), who face another must-win game on the road tonight against No. 13 Clemson (20-4, 6-4). But if you look beyond the recent turmoil, which includes a star player squabbling with fans and the coach publicly feuding with the athletic department, Maryland has won three of its past four games.
The Terps might even have a shot at making the NCAA tournament if they can, at the very least, split their final six contests against Clemson, North Carolina, Duke, North Carolina State, Wake Forest and Virginia.
Whatever Williams' faults - and he is well aware they have been a popular topic for fans, boosters and the media this season - he said his basketball team has shown recently that criticism coming from outside its inner circle matters little. In its last game, Maryland looked as good as it has all season, easily defeating Virginia Tech, 83-73.
"I've always been that way as a coach," Williams said. "I've been able to compartmentalize and make sure that when we're on the practice floor [this week], we're practicing for Clemson. We don't have another reason to play. We don't need any artificial stimulus."
Williams acknowledges that kind of singular focus wasn't always his strength. When he first came to Maryland, it used to infuriate him that people would fire arrows at his program from afar. Every game turned into an opportunity to prove himself and stick it to his critics.
"My first couple years here, there was a lot of distractions, and I felt it took away from what we were trying to do," Williams said. "You just have to figure out a way not to let those things bother you.
"You realize that the key to surviving in this business, to longevity, is to do what you're supposed to do and not let outside things take you away from your mission."
One of Maryland's toughest missions tonight will be finding a way to slow Terrence Oglesby, the Tigers' sharp-shooting sophomore guard. Last season against the Terps, Oglesby made a three-pointer with 2.3 seconds left to give Clemson a 73-70 victory in College Park.
Although Oglesby is Clemson's third-leading scorer (13.5 points per game) behind Trevor Booker (15.2) and K.C. Rivers (14.4), he might be best suited to exploit the Terps' biggest weakness. Statistically, Maryland has been the worst team in the ACC this season defending the three-point shot, allowing its opponents to hit 35 percent of their attempts.
"They kind of stole a [win] from us in a close one last year," Maryland senior Dave Neal said. "We were up big, and then they got hot late. Oglesby hit a big three from the corner to seal the win. If we would have won that game, we might have been in the tournament. So we're keeping that in the back of our mind. I know we're excited and going down there thinking we can win this game."
Clemson had been cruising right along, establishing itself as one of the 10 best teams in the country, until the Tigers were stunned in overtime by Virginia on Sunday.
"Since they lost, they're obviously going to be a lot more fired up to play us," Neal said. "If we can go down there and steal a win on the road, I think it would be huge for us. I think they kind of underestimated UVA, and it just shows how competitive the ACC is."
Maryland could certainly improve its chances of pulling off the upset if the Terps continue to get strong games from Landon Milbourne, who tied a career high with 23 points against Virginia Tech - and hit free throws at such a high percentage in physical games. Against the Hokies, they made 22 of 23 shots from the foul line in the second half. The Terps lead the ACC in free-throw percentage (.778).
"On the road, that can change at any time," Williams said. "I don't really like to talk about it, because I'm a little superstitious about it."
What to watch for
Can the Terps keep Clemson from hitting three-pointers? Maryland has allowed the highest three-point percentage in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Guard Terrence Oglesby versus Maryland's perimeter defense. He is the Tigers' best three-point shooter, making about 41 percent of his tries.
What it means
An upset of a ranked team would be a huge step in getting Maryland back in the NCAA tournament picture.
MARYLAND (16-8, 5-5) @NO. 13 CLEMSON (20-4, 6-4)
Radio: 1300 AM, 105.7 FM
by 10 1/2