Saturday, March 14, 2009

Maryland on the brink of NCAA Tournament berth

I'll admit it. I never thought Maryland would even get close to making the NCAA Tournament. For many, the 41-point loss to Duke was the worst point of the season, but for me, it was really the game after that, against Boston College, that made me think the season was going in the wrong direction.

In that game, Maryland led 40-29 at halftime, and it looked as if the team had put the Duke game behind them. Then, BC outscored Maryland by 20 in the second half to earn a valuable ACC road win. Greivis Vasquez shot seven of 20 in that game, and Maryland shot a terrible three of 17 from three-point range. Even though it was still early in ACC play, the loss pushed Maryland to a 2-4 record in conference, and I didn't think the team would recover.

I was wrong.

After that game, Gary Williams and the Terps won every game they were supposed to until the debacle at Virginia. In that stretch, Maryland beat Miami, lost to North Carolina, beat Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, lost to Clemson, beat North Carolina, lost to Duke, beat N.C. State, and lost to Wake Forest and Virginia. The Virginia loss was by far the worst, but Maryland nearly beat Duke in the two teams' second meeting and almost knocked off Wake. Maryland also had a strong first-half showing against Clemson before getting outscoured by 23 in the second half of that game.

But after the crushing loss to Virginia, Williams rallied the troops again for the ACC Tournament. Maryland won a tough game against N.C. State in the opening round and then yesterday completely frustrated Wake Forest in a 75-64 win.

The weird thing is, Maryland didn't play particularly well during significant stretches of the game. Maryland turned the ball over eight more times than Wake Forest; Vasquez had 22 points, but it was on six-of-19 shooting; and Cliff Tucker and Adrian Bowie combined for only six points.

But after a few minutes in the first half, Williams switched to a three-two zone, and Wake Forest had no idea what to do. Jeff Teague and Al-Farouq Aminu (potential lottery picks in the upcoming NBA draft) shot a combined five of 25 from the field, and Wake Forest as a team shot an awful three of 25 (12 percent) from three-point range. Instead of trying to get into the paint and use their size anyway, the Demon Deacons just kept launching threes, which played right into Maryland's hands.

And you wouldn't have figured it by watching the game, but Maryland also won the rebounding battle (43-34). That's right, Wake Forest, a team with a starting frontcourt of two six-foot-nine guys and a seven footer got outrebounded by two six-foot-seven forwards and a six-foot-six guard.

Maryland can be frustrating to watch at times because, obviously, fans want them to be better. They want to see another final four run. This team doesn't have that in them, but that doesn't take anything away from the effort they've been giving night in and night out. The Terps start out every game with an emormous disadvantage: Their "center," Dave Neal, is only six foot seven. No other team in the ACC is that small, so Maryland must rebound as a team. And the Terps' only post presence comes when Neal does some kind of YMCA-type move in the paint to get a layup or floater to drop in. Vasquez has to truly do it all for this team to have a chance to win; he's basically the only player on the team who can consistently create his own shot, even if he does force the ball from time to time.

Maybe I'm making too much of this tournament run, but no one can deny that this may be one of Gary Williams's finest coaching seasons. Even if Maryland gets in the NCAA Tournament and loses its first game, it'll be huge just for them to be there at all.

Maybe Williams was right after all. Just give him some hard-working players, and he'll coach them up. I won't doubt him again.

AP Photo/John Bazemore

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