COLLEGE PARK -- When Maryland played Duke earlier this season, the Terrapins had won four straight games, were ranked 18th in the country and were tied with the then-No. 2 Blue Devils for first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Terps, 12-3 overall and 5-1 in the league, were swaggering.
"We're going to go down there and kick some butt," sophomore point guard Duane Simpkins said in a statement that became blackboard fodder for Duke, and part of the impetus for its 75-62 victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Going into tonight's 8 o'clock rematch with the still-No. 2, still-first-place Blue Devils at Cole Field House, Maryland (15-9, 7-7) is no longer ranked, no longer at the top of the league standings. And, instead of swaggering, the Terps are staggering.
Back-to-back losses last week at North Carolina State and Clemson -- the two bottom teams in the ACC -- put Maryland in fifth place and firmly entrenched on the ever-expanding bubble to this year's 64-team NCAA tournament field.
The Terps must now upset Duke (21-3, 11-3) or beat slumping Virginia at home Saturday to ensure a .500 record in the league, which likely would give the team its first NCAA tournament bid in six years.
"We're excited about having something to play for the last week of the regular season," Maryland coach Gary Williams said yesterday. "That's the first time we've been in that situation in the five years I've been here."
Considering their history during the past decade, the Terps are overdue or overmatched against the Blue Devils. Maryland hasn't won in this series since the 1987-88 season, and hasn't won at home since 1984-85. Duke has won 14 straight, and 20 of the past 21 games.
Duke remains the only ACC team that Williams hasn't beaten since returning to his alma mater, and his team's recent play doesn't bode well for tonight. Maryland started off poorly against N.C. State and finished poorly against Clemson.
"We were a little tight," said Williams. "The pressure of making the NCAA tournament is a new experience for us. It's something that we have to deal with. This is where our lack of experience hurts."
Williams and his staff have spent the past few days trying to relieve some of that pressure by accentuating the fact that the Terps, who weren't expected to be a factor in the ACC until next season, have been overachievers.
"The coaches have done a good job keeping our heads up," said Simpkins, one of the few to play well in both games last week. "They put together a highlight tape where we were hitting our shots and playing good defense."
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, meanwhile, said his team won't look past the Terps to Saturday night's showdown in Durham with No. 5 North Carolina, a game with not only ACC regular-season championship implications, but NCAA tournament significance as well.
"This will be an extremely difficult week," said Krzyzewski, whose Blue Devils started the week Sunday with a 59-47 win at home over then-No. 8 Temple. "They [Maryland] seem to play better at home.
"When you're on the road with a young team, you get a little tired or a little bit down, and there's nobody to pick you up. At home, that's not the case."
Despite its recent struggles, Maryland might be in better shape than Virginia or Georgia Tech, the other ACC teams still holding some legitimate hopes of making the NCAA tournament. (Duke, North Carolina and Wake Forest are thought to have already locked up bids.)
Although it has eight wins in the league, including one over North Carolina, Virginia needs to improve its overall record (14-10) to make the NCAA tournament. The Cavaliers, starting to feel the effects of playing nearly the entire season without point guard Cory Alexander, have lost three of four. They meet Virginia Tech at USAir Arena tonight before finishing at Maryland on Saturday.
"In some ways it may be easier to get the team focused [on the road]," said Virginia coach Jeff Jones, whose 1991-92 team remains the only ACC team not to get a bid with a .500 league record. "I think we have outwardly dealt with our situation well. We didn't talk about it [what it will take to get a bid]. But we've made sure our players know what's at stake."
Unlike Maryland and Virginia, Georgia Tech (15-10, 6-8) has picked up some momentum after a slow start. But the Yellow Jackets, who have won three of their past four and completed a season sweep of the Tar Heels, also lost starters Drew Barry and James Forrest to injury.
Barry (broken foot) might be back for the ACC tournament, and Forrest (sprained ankle) could be back for tonight's game at Florida State. The Yellow Jackets finish the regular season by playing host to Clemson on Saturday.
"We're fighting for our lives," said Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins. "We've proved that when we're healthy, we can play with anybody in the country."
So has Maryland. Beating Duke, though, is another story entirely.
Radio: WQSI (820 AM)
Outlook: The seventh-seeded Mountaineers try to advance to the conference semifinals for the first time after struggling to a 90-81 victory over 10th seed St. Francis, N.Y., at home Monday night. Monmouth, the No. 2 seed, notched its most conference wins ever, finishing 13-5 in the league to the Mount's 9-9. The Hawks count on all-league C Glenn Stokes (15.9 ppg, 9.4 rpg, NEC-best .625 field-goal percentage) and G John Giraldo (14.7 ppg, 5.3 apg). These teams split during the regular season with the Mount winning at home, 81-65, and Monmouth winning Feb. 12 in New Jersey, 83-80.
% Duke (21-3, 11-3) at Maryland (15-9, 7-7) Site: Cole Field House, College Park
Radio: WBAL (1090 AM)
Outlook: The Blue Devils come in on a roll, having won four straight and six out of seven. While the toughest matchup for Maryland remains senior Grant Hill (17 ppg, 6.7 rpg, and 5.2 apg) junior C Cherokee Parks (14.1 ppg, 8.3 rpg) gave the Terps the most trouble back in January, finishing with 24 points, 11 rebounds and three blocked shots. Duke doubled up on freshman C Joe Smith (19.1 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 3.1 bpg), limiting him to 11 points on three-of-11 shooting.