Terps look for finishing touch

COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK -- Sitting on a bubble can be a precarious position, particularly if it's the one leading to the NCAA tournament. But that's where the Maryland and Virginia basketball teams find themselves going into today's regular-season finale at Cole Field House.

The Terrapins (15-10, 7-8) need another Atlantic Coast Conference victory to bring themselves to .500 in the league, the usual but not written-in-stone figure for ACC teams to reach the NCAA tournament. The 15-10 Cavaliers have enough conference wins -- they're 8-7 -- but would feel more secure with another victory.


"We know what we have to do -- win -- everyone's been talking about it, everyone's been writing about it," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, whose Terps will be looking to break a three-game losing streak. "We just have to go out and play as hard as we did against Duke [a 73-69 loss Wednesday] and go from there."

Said Virginia coach Jeff Jones, whose Cavaliers have lost three of their past four ACC games, "If we win one more, I don't think they can keep us out."


Today's 4 p.m. game between the ACC's fourth- and fifth-place teams might be only a preview to next week's ACC tournament quarterfinal between the Terrapins and Cavaliers at the Charlotte (N.C.) Coliseum. If Maryland wins, the teams will definitely meet again. If Virginia wins, they still might face each other, depending on the outcome of three other ACC games today.

The situation is similar to several recent end-of-season games between the two teams, which have closed out the regular season every year since 1979. Among them:

* In 1986, then Virginia athletic director Dick Schultz, who was also the chairman of the NCAA tournament selection committee, said that a 17-12 Maryland team had to beat the Cavaliers to get a bid. To which, former Terps coach Lefty Driesell bellowed, "If we don't get in, it'll be the biggest rip-off since the Louisiana Purchase." Maryland won, 87-72, and secured its place in the NCAA tournament, though not in history.

* In 1988, a 15-11 Maryland team which had lost four of its previous five ACC games were clearly on the bubble. There were rumors of players threatening to transfer -- Steve Hood and Brian Williams would after the season -- and a tenuous relationship developing between the team and then coach Bob Wade. But the Terps managed to pull it together and beat the Cavaliers, 69-63, to secure the school's last NCAA tournament invitation.

* In 1990, Gary Williams' first Maryland team was 17-12 going into University Hall for the final game of the regular season. The Terps had already swept North Carolina and were looking for a sweep of Virginia. But a 5-8 ACC record, and impending NCAA probation, made things uncertain. Despite an 89-74 win over the Cavaliers, the Terps were overlooked by the NCAA selection committee after getting blown out by Duke, 104-84, in the opening round of the ACC tournament. They lost in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament.

* In 1992, the Cavaliers were 15-12 overall, but 7-8 in the ACC, heading into Cole Field House. They seemingly locked up an NCAA tournament invitation with a 76-74 win over Maryland. But after losing to Georgia Tech, 68-56, in the opening round of the ACC tournament, Virginia wound up in the NIT, despite splitting with Wake Forest during the regular season and having a better league record than the Demon Deacons, who got into the NCAAs. Virginia won the NIT. "I still have a hard time understanding why we didn't get in," Jones said.

Because of their record, and because they beat then top-ranked North Carolina earlier this season, the Cavaliers likely will get an invitation regardless of whether they win today's game or a game in the conference tournament. But Maryland's situation is less certain, despite sweeping Wake Forest, and beating two then-ranked teams: No. 15 Georgetown in the season opener and No. 12 Georgia Tech in the ACC opener.

A victory today would ease the pressure for Maryland going into next week's ACC tournament. "It's been difficult to get that last ,, win, with as many chances as we've had," said sophomore guard Johnny Rhodes. "But we've got to go out and play Maryland basketball. We've got to fight and scratch for everything, and let things take care of themselves."


Said freshman center Joe Smith, "If we win, the place will explode."

If they don't, something else will. It doesn't take much with bubbles.