The Maryland men's basketball team begins a critical four-game stretch to end the regular season tonight at Georgia Tech. The Terps are sixth in the Atlantic Coast Conference at 7-7 and they have a 19-8 record overall, but they must make a statement in the next two weeks to prevent their NCAA tourney bubble from bursting.
Costly losses to Virginia and Boston College have tarnished their tournament resume, scraping the luster off their win over second-ranked Duke at Comcast Center just 11 days ago. I spoke with a pair of bracketologists today who say the Terps face long odds at making the field of 68, but they still have hope for an at-large bid.
“They are talented enough to be a tournament team,” ESPN’s Joe Lunardi said in a phone interview this morning, singling out Alex Len and Dez Wells for praise in particular. “But because of their scheduling, they just don’t have enough good wins. Those two losses to Florida State are killers. Losing at home to Virginia, another so-so profile in the ACC, that was a killer. And then the loss to Boston College is just an anchor.”
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Maryland has yet to produce a signature win on the road, and their non-conference schedule was stocked with cupcakes like LIU Brooklyn and UMES. Lunardi thinks the lack of challenging games -- and quality wins -- early hurts them more than the loss to Boston College.
“It is musical chairs. There are more people than there are seats,” he said. “And when the music stops, the committee has to eliminate some teams. And when you lose bad games, particularly late in the year, you’re giving them a reason to eliminate you. I’m telling you, when you’re right on the cut line like they are, one of the first things they look at is your non-conference schedule. Teams get kicked to the curb because of that.”
The Terps play three of their final four regular-season games on the road. After games at Georgia Tech and Wake Forest, they play two teams in the top 100 in RPI: North Carolina at home and Virginia on the road.
“They certainly have an opportunity to improve their situation,” Lunardi said. “But they’re not going to improve it by being a .500 team in the so-so ACC, especially with that non-conference schedule. Let’s be honest, that’s what’s really holding them back.”
As of right now, Lunardi has ranked the Terps at No. 77, meaning they must leap-frog nine other teams to get an at-large bid. But Jerry Palm of CBS Sports isn’t as high on the Terps, saying 20 teams are ahead of them.
“They have three top-100 RPI wins: Duke, N.C. State and Stony Brook, all at home. So that’s probably the most glaring weakness,” Palm said in a phone interview this afternoon. “That’s just not enough quality wins, and nothing away from home. In fact, there hasn’t been a team in the tournament to get an at-large win in 10 years with only three top-100 RPI wins. … They’re going to have to beat somebody and prove that they can play away from home.”
Palm said last week’s loss at Boston College was a sign of a team that lacks maturity. The 83-81 win over Duke was “the best thing they’ve done all year.” But following it up with that loss to Boston College, which ranks 134 in RPI, was “the worst thing they’ve done all year.” He now thinks they have to “do a lot” to crack the field.
“I really think if they win all four [of their remaining games], they will give themselves a really good chance entering the conference tournament. If they don’t, they’re probably going to have to do something in the conference tournament,” he said. “But in the case of a team like Maryland, which is off the bracket, you don’t really control your own destiny short of winning the conference tournament. You might do something that looks like it is good enough to get you in, but then somebody does something better and you’re still out.”
But while the Terps really hurt themselves with the losses to Virginia and Boston College, both Palm and Lunardi believe the Maryland men don’t necessarily have to win the ACC tournament to go dancing in March.“I think there is absolutely an opportunity to be an at-large [without winning the ACC tournament] because none of these teams [on the bubble] are what you would call juggernauts,” Lunardi said. “They certainly can’t have any more bad losses. They have to win these two road games at Georgia Tech and Wake Forest because they’ve backed themselves into a corner. And I’m not sure what’s more important, beating North Carolina at home or getting a split with Virginia. But if the Terps were to win all four of these games, they’re probably going to get in because they would be 11-7 in the league -- and 11-7 ACC teams go to the tournament.”