COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK -- If not for its loss to Georgia Tech eight days ago, Maryland might be in position to be ranked No. 1. But as it turns out, the loss to Tech was the best thing that could have happened to this team.
The Terps learned that no game was easy, a lesson that served them well in yesterday's 80-65 victory over Florida State. What's more, they so infuriated coach Gary Williams, he had to restrain himself the next day.
"If I was still coaching at AU [American University], that could have been the season," Williams said yesterday, recalling his fury after the 100-91 loss at Tech.
"I would have gone ballistic. We didn't play any defense. It was a joke. We met Sunday night. We had Carolina Tuesday. I knew if I went out on the practice floor, we wouldn't win Tuesday -- I would have lost it.
"We just talked, looked at some tape and went home. When I saw how upset the players were, I knew we had a good group. A lot of guys would have let that roll off -- an ACC loss on the road, no big deal.
"But it bothered us. That was a step forward for the program, that our players felt that way. Two years ago, if we lost to Tech by 10 points, we probably would have been happy."
This Maryland team can't get too happy, even though it's 19-4 for the first time since 1979-80. In three days, the Terps visit No. 11 Wake Forest. As emotional as the past two weeks have been, every game is critical now.
Maryland leads the ACC at 9-2, with Carolina (8-2) visiting Tech today. A first- or second-place finish in the conference, combined with a similar result in the ACC tournament, would ensure that the Terps draw at least a No. 2 seed in an NCAA regional.
That should be motivation enough, but this is the time of year when teams grow mentally tired, if not physically. The Terps were ripe for a letdown yesterday after beating No. 1 Carolina. But even Williams -- El Groucho -- was impressed by their response.
After being thwarted by Florida State's zone defense for most of the first half, they ran off nine straight points to take a 38-33 halftime lead. Then, after leading by only two points with 5:20 left, they outscored the Seminoles 16-3 the rest of the way.
Williams wanted maximum defensive pressure, and he got it. Maryland held Florida State to only seven points in the final 11 minutes, and 30.3 percent shooting in the second half. It mattered little that they were out-rebounded, 41-32.
The fact is, upsets are inevitable in the ACC, so if the Terps hadn't lost to Tech, maybe they would have fallen yesterday. Florida State has Bob Sura, Corey Louis and James Collins. It also has a 4-0 record in games decided by five or fewer points.
So, even though the Terps have won 15 straight at Cole Field House, Williams feared they might lose a close game down the stretch. It didn't happen, because it happened eight days ago. Chances are, it won't happen again.
Center Joe Smith said the loss at Tech was "very helpful." Forward Keith Booth called it a "wake-up call," point guard Duane Simpkins "a constant reminder of what can happen when we don't come out and play defense."
Never mind the impact on Maryland's ranking -- the Terps dropped from No. 5 to No. 8 just before facing No. 1 Carolina. A loss now would be far more damaging, with the standings so close and the upset of Carolina accomplished.
No wonder Williams says his biggest concern is "maintaining where we are." After Wake, Maryland faces four straight unranked opponents -- Cincinnati at the Alamodome in San Antonio, then North Carolina State and Clemson at home and Duke on the road.
The Duke game, in particular, could be trouble -- and so could the regular-season finale at No. 17 Virginia. For the first time in Williams' six-year tenure, teams are getting psyched to play Maryland, rather than the other way around.
Top programs like North Carolina and Duke carry that burden every season, but it's something new for the Terps, and it leaves them little margin for error. "If we're not ready to play, we'll lose," Williams said.
They were ready yesterday, when they had every reason to be flat. Smith said that compared to Tuesday night, the crowd was "dead." But at this point, the crowd is irrelevant. The motivation comes from within.
"Psychologically, it was different from being pumped up for the No. 1 team in the country," Booth said. "But as players, we have to be ready, no matter who it's against. We have no choice but to get ready for the next game."
Simpkins took a different, but equally compelling, perspective: "I think back to my freshman year and even a little bit of last year. We were down. People didn't think we could do things. That's motivation enough to go out and win."
And so here they are, 19-4. Their four losses were to teams currently ranked in the top 18. The only one that was inexcusable was the one against Tech, the one that ultimately might be considered the turning point of their season.
Williams was so upset that day, he was on the verge of erupting. These days, he's so relaxed, he's doing stand-up comedy. The truth is, he loves this team.
Yesterday, he could hear loud rap music coming from the Maryland locker room during his post-game news conference.
"By February, you know the words," he joked. "That's what's scary."
El Groucho can't help but admit it.
/# The Terps are playing his song.