COLLEGE PARK — — It was one of Gary Williams' favorite seasons, but also one of his most trying.
It was 2008-09, and the Maryland coach's team was on the bubble — barely — for an NCAA tournament bid. After finishing the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season with a 7-9 mark, the Terps believed they needed two wins in the ACC tournament to qualify for an NCAA berth. Maryland fans showed up at the tournament with T-shirts with "two" printed on them, and were rewarded with the deuce they were looking for, and an eventual bid.
If Maryland's current season resembles any in the recent past, it is 2008-09. With a record of 12-7 (2-3 ACC), the team must begin stockpiling wins to position itself for serious NCAA consideration.
It's familiar terrain for Williams. The 2008-09 team had almost the identical record (13-7) at this time in late January. That team, like this one, had left itself little room for error.
After Maryland's victory against Clemson last Saturday, the Terps face road games against teams — Virginia (11-8, 2-3) Thursday night and Georgia Tech (10-9, 3-3) Sunday night — that, like the Terps, are trying to distinguish themselves from the ACC pack.
Williams, in his 22nd season at his alma mater, says has neither the time nor the inclination to assess how the Terps might rank against the scores of would-be participants in the NCAA tournament field. The coach says he's just focused on winning games.
"I never talk about it," Williams said Wednesday in a media conference call.
But Williams did allow for a comparison between this season and 2008-09. In both seasons, he suggested, the team encountered plenty of doubters. The 2008-09 team became a Williams favorite after advancing to the NCAA tournament's second round following earlier media criticism over its direction and recruiting.
"I think we've proven that — like two years ago — it's what you do," Williams said. "It's not what anyone says."
Maryland may have more urgency in a season in which the ACC is not as strong as in seasons past. That means Maryland's conference wins are likely to be weighted less in the eyes of the tournament selection committee than in many other years, and a .500 conference mark might not ensure a spot in the 68-team field.
The Terps have losses this season — all by single digits — to Villanova, Pittsburgh, Illinois, Temple and Duke. All have been ranked this season in the Top 25, and Pittsburgh, Duke and Villanova are currently ranked Nos. 2, 3 and 8, respectively.
"Some schools play an easy schedule," Williams said. "We played a pretty tough schedule this year. I think right now if you look at the ACC, it's getting better. Whether that pulls any weight or not…"
Virginia has wins this season over a ranked Minnesota team as well as over LSU, Oklahoma, Oregon and Virginia Tech. But the Cavaliers had lost three in a row until defeating Georgia Tech on Saturday.
Virginia, which can play or three or four guards at once, is led by senior guard Mustapha Farrakhan (13 points per game).
Virginia's biggest challenge will be trying to limit Maryland center Jordan Williams, who has a school-record 13 straight double doubles.
"He can really change the game," Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. "When he gets going, they play at a very high level. You can see that. Just with his size and his touch and ability to play on the glass, you really better do a good job, make him earn [it]."