GREENSBORO, N.C. — The odds of Maryland winning the 61st Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and reaching the NCAA tournament might seem like a longshot to those who've spent the past few months watching the Terps struggle with their consistency.
But having won two straight games — and coming off their biggest win of the season — the eighth-seeded Terps enter their last ACC tournament with confidence.
Maryland (17-14) plays ninth-seeeded Florida State (18-12) Thursday at noon, with the winner advancing to Friday's quarterfinals against top-seed Virginia. The Terps beat the then-No. 5-ranked Cavaliers, 75-69, in overtime Sunday in College Park.
"We were always confident, but being able to finally do it gives us confidence for this weekend," Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said Wednesday after the Terps practiced at a local private school.
The root of the feeling that Maryland can win the ACC tournament for only the fourth time in school history actually goes back to last season.
Turgeon has often said that his team is "good in tournaments," pointing to the way the Terps beat Duke and nearly North Carolina here last year, then reached the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament with two home wins and a victory at Alabama.
The Terps also won three games in four days at the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands in November, though those came against much less formidable competition than they'll face in the ACC tournament.
"It's something we started talking about a month ago, when the season wasn't going the way we wanted to go and we said, 'We've got to be playing our best basketball come tournament time,'" Turgeon said.
"Actually the players think they're a really good tournament team, so that's more important than me feeling it and thinking it," Turgeon continued. "It's a different tournament. We've got a really tough first-round matchup. You've to go to figure out a way to beat Florida State and then it becomes a tournament."
Turgeon and his players know their situation this season is different than it was going into last year's ACC tournament.
With a win over Duke in the regular season a year ago and again in the quarterfinals of last year's ACC tournament, many believed that the Terps would have received an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament had they defeated North Carolina in the semis.
What hurts Maryland's chances of making the NCAA tournament this year is the fact that Sunday's win over Virginia was the Terps' first over a team with a top 50 RPI. It also doesn't help that they have non-conference losses at home to Oregon State and Boston University.
Nick Faust (City) was asked if he thought Maryland would concentrate more on beating Florida State than the possibility of winning the tournament in order to qualify for NCAA tournament.
"Our focus is definitely to win the whole tournament," the junior guard said. "That would be a big thing for us, a big thing for the school."
Junior guard Dez Wells, who scored 30 points in the Terps' tournanent upset of Duke a year ago, said the team's current plight shouldn't factor into the Florida State game.
"I think we just have to take it one game at a time, one possession at a time," Wells said. "We love playing basketball, so it shouldn't come to us as a burden. In the Virgin Islands and last year in the NIT and ACC, everyone was smiling, having fun, and that's when we're playing our best."
Asked Monday if the win over Virginia could provide the same sort of spark as the late-season win over then-No. 2 Duke did a year ago, Turgeon said that the circumstances are much different.
"It's been such a different year to last year, so it's hard to compare," he said. "What we did [Sunday] really for the first time, I wouldn't say we played 45 minutes well, but we were concentrating for 45 minutes. To beat a team as good as Virginia, we had to do that."
Thanks to their recent play, the Terps are considered something of a dark horse this week.
Maryland nearly beat then-No. 8 Duke on Feb. 15 and then-No. 4 Syracuse on Feb. 24, losing each game by two points, with shots to win both. Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton called the Terps "a dangerous" team.
When Hamilton's comment was relayed, Turgeon said, "I think they're dangerous too. Virginia's dangerous. North Carolina's dangerous. It's a fine line between winning and losing, and whoever makes plays late in this game is going to advance in this tournament.
Turgeon said Wednesday that being a good tournament team means his players are "good at quick turnarounds."
"It doesn't become a tournament if we lose tomorrow," he said. "It becomes a tournament if we win tomorrow."
NOTE: The Terps practiced at Wesleyan Christian Academy, where former Maryland point guard Keith Gatlin is the head coach. Among those attending practice Wednesday was another former Terp point guard, Duane Simpkins, now an assistant coach at UNC-Greensboro.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun