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March Madness will include no Maryland teams for second time in three years

For the second time in three years, no Maryland school was among the 68 selected for the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

But coaches and observers say that fact combined with a relative down period for the University of Maryland have obscured an overall upswing in the state's college basketball scene.

Highlights from 2012-2013 included: Loyola winning 20 games for the second straight season, Towson staging a historic turnaround from 1-31 to 18-13 and tied for second in the Colonial Athletic Association and Mount St. Mary's going to the final of the Northeast Conference tournament under a first-year coach.

Morgan State came within a few points of winning the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament. Despite an uneven season, Maryland made a late push for an NCAA bid with a win over Duke in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. The Terps are a No. 2 seed in the NIT, which starts Tuesday night.

Even programs that had tough seasons, such as Navy and UMBC, won more games than in 2011-2012.

"The state of Maryland had a great year," says Loyola coach Jimmy Patsos, whose team was the state's lone representative in March Madness last season. "I do think it's weird when Maryland doesn't send a team to the NCAA tournament. But when you look at the Mount, Towson, us, Morgan, I definitely think it's on an upswing. It's the old question of is the arrow pointing up or down? And I think it's pointing up."

Swings in the state's NCAA fortunes are inevitable, says Pat Clatchey, the coach at Mount St. Joseph High School, which has had many players recruited by Division I programs. "The local teams, for the most part, had good seasons," he says. "[Aside from Maryland] it's hard for them to receive bids every year because it comes down to those 72 hours in the conference tournament."

Patsos says the picture was far bleaker when he took the Loyola job in 2004 after the Greyhounds had suffered a 1-27 debacle. Towson was in the dumps at that point. Todd Bozeman had not yet arrived to make Morgan a threat in the MEAC. Among area coaches, only Gary Williams at Maryland and Fang Mitchell at Coppin State had managed any kind of sustained success.

And yet Williams' run with the Terps obscured the futility at many of the state's mid-major programs. Maryland made 11 straight NCAA appearances between 1994 and 2004, meaning local fans always had a team to pull for when they filled out their brackets.

"The picture always starts with Maryland," says Patsos, a former Terps assistant. "And right now, they're improving, but they're really young."

Mark Turgeon might have thought he had a tournament team as the Terps rolled to a 13-1 start this season, their deep bench overwhelming a soft slate of non-conference opponents. But they could never achieve consistency in the ACC, alternating thrilling performances such as their wins over Duke with gut-punch losses at home against the likes of Florida State and Virginia.

With their semifinal loss to North Carolina in the ACC tournament, the Terps essentially forfeited their chance to make the NCAA for the first time in three years. Maryland has only gone to the tournament three times in the last nine years.

Loyola seemed the state's other best bet for a tournament bid entering the season. The Greyhounds surprised everyone by winning the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference in 2012 and had their three leading scorers returning.

But between injuries and brief suspensions, Patsos rarely had his full team available. And he says a brutal travel schedule, authored by MAAC officials who perhaps weren't thrilled with Loyola's impending departure to the Patriot League, did not help.

"We dealt with a lot of adversity," Patsos says. "But we played really poorly in five of our 32 games, and that's too many if you want to make the NIT or the NCAA tournament. I take responsibility for that as a coach."

Nonetheless, Patsos says he was proud not angry after his team lost to Manhattan in the MAAC quarterfinals. With 21 wins, the Greyhounds have posted the second-best record of Patsos' nine-year tenure, and on Tuesday they will host Boston University in the CollegeInsider.com postseason tournament.

If Loyola's solid season was expected, the turnarounds at Towson and Mount St. Mary's surprised most observers.

Led by Georgetown transfer Jerrelle Benimon, who might have been the best college player in the state, Towson achieved its first winning season since 1995-1996. Second-year coach Pat Skerry had the Tigers rolling down the stretch and was convinced they could be major threat in the CAA tournament. But Towson was barred from postseason play because of poor academic performance under previous coach Pat Kennedy.

Mount St. Mary's rode a similar hot streak to the NEC final before falling, 91-70, to defending champion LIU Brooklyn. Despite the loss, coach Jamion Christian righted a program that had gone 19-42 in the two seasons before he arrived.

He saw the light bulb come on for his players after an overtime loss at Bryant in January.

"My big thing was that I just wanted to establish a culture in which guys understood how hard they had to work to be really good," Christian says. "I told them after that game that we were just inches away. And I could see by their reaction that they were ready to take it to the next level."

Playing in the championship game, he says, gave his players self-belief that should carry into next season.

So what are the chances that Maryland teams will go bidless again next season?

Early prospects for 2013-2014 look bright at Towson and Mount St. Mary's, with both expecting to return this season's most productive players. Morgan is almost always a MEAC contender under Bozeman. Loyola will have both of its starting guards back but faces uncertainty over the rest of the rotation. Rumors are also swirling that Siena might try to court Patsos for its coaching vacancy.

"One of us mid-majors has got to jump out and do something spectacular," says Christian, looking ahead. "Maybe win a game in the NCAA tournament. We've all got to be consistently good. I would love that."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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