COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK -- Disguised in the artificial atmosphere of a nonconference game, the moment of truth arrives this afternoon at Cole Field House for Maryland's beleaguered basketball team.
The Terps will greet it -- and the Missouri Tigers -- at something less than 100 percent.
They will play without senior co-captain Duane Simpkins, who is serving a three-game NCAA suspension for an improper loan payment. He will be replaced at point guard for the second straight game by two freshmen.
They will play with their biggest inside force -- freshman Obinna Ekezie -- nursing a pulled groin muscle that limits lateral movement.
What's more, the Terps will play with the knowledge they cannot afford a loss to Missouri. In a year of near-misses, this is their last chance to make an out-of-conference statement.
Maryland's postseason hopes could be on the line in today's nationally televised, 2 p.m. tip-off that pits teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big Eight.
NCAA tournament bids go out in three weeks. Barring a sweep of the ACC tournament next month, Maryland (12-9) may need to post a significant nonconference win after early-season losses to Kentucky, Massachusetts and UCLA.
"It'd be nice to say you don't think about that," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, "but we're in a situation where if we get a win [today], that'd be a big win for us.
"We've beaten three teams ranked in the Top 25. We'd like to get another one right here. They [the Tigers] aren't ranked, but they just beat Kansas, are on a roll and playing their best basketball."
The Terps are 3-5 against teams ranked in the AP's Top 25 this season, but are 0-4 against Top 10 opponents, including two losses to No. 8 Wake Forest.
This game also is important to Missouri (16-8), which knocked off Kansas eight days ago and figures to be the third Big Eight team in the NCAA tourney. But the Tigers are only 2-8 on the road, where they have suffered some ugly losses, including a 36-point defeat at Oklahoma.
They were 12-4 at one point, but have gone 4-4 in the past eight games. Like Williams, Missouri coach Norm Stewart has dealt with adversity this season, too.
"We've always had good players and people at Missouri," Stewart said during a Big Eight teleconference last week. "When you get a little adversity is when it shows. Players come closer together, they don't spread out."
For Maryland, adversity is not only coping with the loss of Simpkins, but trying to overcome Missouri's size.
The Tigers have twin 7-footers in Simeon and Sammie Haley, 6-11 freshman Monte Hardge, 6-10 junior Derek Grimm and 6-8 Kelly Thames. Because only Simeon Haley (8.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and Thames (14.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg) start, that means Missouri has a lot of fouls to give.
Maryland answers inside with 6-9 Ekezie, 6-6 power forward Keith Booth, and a pair of 6-8 backups in Mario Lucas and Rodney Elliott. Lucas plays on the perimeter and is seldom a force inside. Elliott has gotten little playing time since his six-game run as a starter ended in mid-January.
Rebounding is not Maryland's strength, anyway. The Terps have been out-rebounded eight straight games and in 10 of the past 11.
As for the change at point guard, Williams said he liked the play of alternating freshmen Terrell Stokes and Laron Profit in last week's loss to Wake Forest. He decided against using junior Matt Kovarik, for whom he hopes to get a medical redshirt.
"The thing I liked about Laron, he didn't panic," Williams said. "He was very much in control out there. I thought Terrell did a good job playing the number of minutes he had to play [a season-high 31]. It's a little different pressure on you when you . . . know there's no Duane there to take the pressure off."
Williams said he is counting on Maryland's NCAA tournament experience the past two years to pull it through the stretch run.
"This time of year, and hopefully every year, these games are big," he said. "You have to learn how to handle the situation. We should know how to handle the situation.
"I've seen adversity get teams to a level where they could beat anybody on a particular night. We're trying to rally, obviously, around this thing."