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Now, Terps need to show roadworthiness

COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK -- The Maryland Terrapins celebrated the completion of a perfect season at Cole Field House yesterday. But what happens now?

If the Terps are going to realize any of the big ideas fermenting in their heads, they'll have to do so away from Cole, on the road, at neutral sites, with few fans on their side. And they have been a far less formidable team in such circumstances this season.

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Sixteen wins without a loss at Cole is a rare and fine accomplishment, but it means the Terps are just a mediocre 6-5 away from Cole. And they're 0-5 away from Cole against teams currently ranked in the Top 25. That's right, a big zero. You can look it up.

"We haven't played as well [away from Cole], no doubt about it," junior guard Johnny Rhodes said yesterday after the Terps put ** away Clemson. "We haven't concentrated as well. But that doesn't mean we won't."

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No, it doesn't. And maybe it's true that there's no significance to the disparity in their home and away/neutral records. "I think it's pretty typical," coach Gary Williams said. "Most top teams don't do that well away from home. It's not easy at this level."

Yet the facts are out there, and hardly comforting for Terp-a-holics. Away from Cole, the Terps have beaten Chaminade, Utah, Florida State, North Carolina State, Clemson and Cincinnati -- only two of which (Utah and Cincinnati) bTC probably will make the NCAA tournament, not as high seeds. Meanwhile, the five teams that have beaten the Terps away from Cole (Arizona State, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest) all will be NCAA tournament teams without question, several as high seeds.

In other words, as highly ranked and highly lauded as the Terps are, they really haven't shown that they can consistently succeed against top competition without the home-court crutch.

And, of course, you must win without such a crutch if you're going to accomplish anything in a sport in which almost every postseason game is played on a neutral court.

"Every team that does well in the postseason somehow manages to get it done," Williams said, "and there's no reason why we can't, too."

No, but if the Terps are going to begin beating top teams without the crutch, they'll clearly have to improve the quality of their defense, which is where they have fallen off most noticeably away from Cole. They gave up 100 points to Carolina and Tech, 97 to Arizona State and 85 to Massachusetts. Their average per-game yield is 72 points.

"With the quality of the athletes we have here, we're going to score plenty of points," sophomore Keith Booth said, "but you have to dig real deep to stop people when you're away from home. It can be tough when there's no support and maybe you don't get a couple of calls and things aren't going your away. We've had some problems with that. But I think it's getting better."

It would appear so. The loss to Wake Forest two weeks ago was a certifiable clunker ("our worst game of the season," Williams said), but the defense wasn't the culprit in the 63-54 loss. And then four days later the Terps held a quality Cincinnati team to 72 points in their neutral-site win.

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"A good team gets better at a lot of things as the season goes on," Rhodes said. "We were real inconsistent on the road for a while, particularly on defense. But I think we're coming together."

We'll see. The Terps finish their regular-season schedule at Duke and Virginia, as they contend with Carolina and Virginia for a regular-season ACC championship. Then comes the ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C., where there will be little Maryland support, and then the NCAA tournament at, well, anywhere and probably everywhere but Baltimore.

Time to grow big shoulders.

"It's not a concern," Williams said. "We have a nice team. Considering what's gone on here [in the past decade], I'm just glad to get to the last week of the season and have all these things to play for."

The Terps won and won and won at Cole to get to such a point, and also won at North Carolina State, Florida State and Clemson, feats not to be belittled in a league in which everyone can play. It's not as though the Terps have shown nothing on the road.

But they're going to have to beat better teams than Clemson in the NCAA tournament, and they'll have to beat them in some half-full, strangely silent gym somewhere in the middle of nowhere, with the fans that do care rooting against Maryland because they want to see an upset.

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Not easy. Never easy.

"If you're a ballplayer, the fans and the gym shouldn't make a difference," Booth said.

But they do. Players and coaches decide games, but the fans and the gym always make a difference. The central issue, with this fine Maryland team, is just how much of a difference.


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