Following reality check in Greensboro, Terps await NCAA fortune

March 13, 2010 | Luke Jones

A share of the conference regular season title and a seven-game winning streak will make any team feel good about itself.

Coach Gary Williams, senior leader Greivis Vasquez, and the rest of the Maryland Terrapins were pleased with how they were playing and had every right to be.

Even the program’s biggest detractors from the last several years were acknowledging the possibility of an ACC tournament championship and a No. 3 seed or—if the right teams had lost over the weekend—the outside chance of grabbing the final No. 2 when the NCAA tournament brackets would be revealed Sunday evening.

A bye in the opening round of the ACC tournament appeared to be the perfect elixir for the Terps’ fatigue—both mental and physical—that was evident when they struggled past Virginia in the regular season finale last Saturday. Five days off was exactly what Maryland needed—or so we thought.

Whether it was a lack of emotion, losing its rhythm after a five-day layoff, a bad quarterfinal draw, or—most likely—a combination of the three, Maryland was humbled in a 69-64 defeat to Georgia Tech on Friday night, particularly in the first half when the Terps fell behind by 19 points and shot only 29 percent from the field.

To be turned away so quickly in Greensboro was a reality check that the Terps are not the type of team that can simply turn it on at a moment’s notice and overcome a significant deficit, even after having nine opportunities to tie or take the lead in the second half. Very few teams are able to do it, and the Terps fell short despite an admirable second-half effort.

But let’s be clear, the end result against Georgia Tech was disappointing, but hardly surprising. The Terps have struggled all season against teams with length inside, and the Yellow Jackets are as tough in the frontcourt as anyone in the country.

Friday’s loss may have been a missed opportunity to improve its seeding, but the loss should not discredit Maryland’s incredible season nor soil its odds for a solid run in the Big Dance.

Nevertheless, the talk of this being a “good” loss is simply that—talk. Vasquez and fellow seniors Eric Hayes and Landon Milbourne talked for weeks about the goal of winning the ACC tournament. Regardless of the Terps’ listless first-half effort, the tournament championship was far more important to these players than most think. The defeat was a painful one in the seniors’ last experience competing in the ACC.

The idea that losing a game early in the weekend will help spark a longer run in the NCAA tournament sounds great on paper for a team with serious NCAA championship aspirations—the 2002 Terps for example—but Maryland’s tournament fate will depend far more on the match-ups chosen by the selection committee than an early exit from the ACC tournament.

You probably wouldn’t expect the Terps to face a team with Georgia Tech’s size in the opening round next week, but if they do, they’ll struggle. And if Maryland manages to avoid teams with imposing frontcourts in the opening weekend, we’ll likely see the Terps in the round of 16.

The reality is championships aren’t won and tournament runs aren’t completed with previous win-loss trends and rhetoric for good talk radio. The cream rises to the top, and it remains to be seen where Maryland lies in that tournament mixture—probably somewhere in the middle. It all hedges on the ingredients lumped together in each region by the selection committee. A “good” or “bad” loss in the conference tournament has little—if anything—to do with it.

What the loss in Greensboro does provide is a higher sense of desperation this week when the Terps will travel to Providence or New Orleans or Spokane to the NCAA tournament for the second year in a row—and the final time for a very proud senior triumvirate.

As strange as it was to witness the Terps’ first-half sleepwalk against Georgia Tech, it’s even more implausible to think it could happen again on Thursday or Friday. And the fact that Maryland hasn’t lost consecutive games since playing in the Maui Invitational in late November only supports the theory.

While the Terps lack all of the necessary components to win a national championship, their impressive resiliency increases the likelihood for a Sweet 16 run. The Yellow Jackets provided a not-so-friendly lesson that postseason success isn’t guaranteed, regardless of whether you captured the regular season title or won seven games in a row or have the ACC player of the year leading the way.

If Maryland didn’t get the message on Friday, we’ll likely be talking about the end of the season a week from now.

We see it all the time when a No. 5 or 6 seed enters the NCAA tournament—already with an eye on the second-round opponent—only to find itself pitted against a formidable underdog capable of sending the favorite home early. Williams will undoubtedly remind his team of a few experiences he’s had over the years—both good (see below) and bad.

We’ll see if the ACC regular season co-champions can regroup and put together a strong tournament run. Questions surrounding this team remain, but we’re about to find out.

Can the Terps play a complete 40 minutes on the big stage?

Are both Milbourne and Sean Mosley capable of playing well offensively at the same time?

Will Vasquez take the Georgia Tech loss in stride or put more pressure on himself to do it all?

Is Maryland capable of getting back to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003?

Plenty of questions, and plenty of opportunities for excitement—or disappointment.

We’ll soon find out how the Terps respond.