Does Maryland have a problem with its half-court offense that needs to be resolved before March, or did the Terps just have a momentary case of the midseason, I'm-better-than-you-are but-I-didn't-play-like-it blues?
"You hear it all the time in college basketball," North Carolina State coach Herb Sendek said.
"A nationally ranked team wins by five, and people ask, 'What's the matter?' To win on the road in this conference is a good win. Sometimes we try to read in and analyze everything in great depth."
Sendek's Wolfpack meets No. 5 Maryland today at 1: 30 p.m. at Cole Field House. Gary Williams would echo his opinion that a subpar second half against Virginia was blown out of proportion, but the Terps' coach also knows that Sendek figures to force Maryland into a half-court game.
Like the Cavaliers did Thursday, and Duke did before that.
Of the Terps' three lowest scoring totals of the season, two came during the first full week of the Atlantic Coast Conference season. It's one thing to go cold against No. 2 Duke, which spent the month of December focusing on defense, and another to go into an offensive funk against lowly Virginia.
The Cavaliers followed a scenario that will be revisited often this season, because few will deign to run with Maryland (14-2, 2-1).
Games naturally tighten in a league setting, where coaches are familiar with opposing systems.
Most want to choke off the Terps' transition game. They have already begun to overplay premier guard Steve Francis when he's without the ball; stop the backdoor cuts by Laron Profit that lead to lob dunks; deny entry passes to forward Terence Morris; collapse on center Obinna Ekezie; and keep Juan Dixon out of the left corner, one of the three-point shooter's favorite spots.
Williams, meanwhile, puts little credence in any criticism of Maryland's walk-up attack.
"I disagree with everyone who says our half-court offense isn't very good," Williams said, while confirming that Maryland is more comfortable in a higher gear. "A lot of teams would trade their half-court [game] for our transition. You use what you have."
For Maryland, that includes a healthy dose of emotion, but Williams said his team was "gun-shy" after an 18-point loss to Duke. Whether the Terps were tentative or tired after hitting the first big bump in this long road of a season, Francis didn't like what he saw at Virginia.
"Everyone has to look at themselves, and see if they want to win that bad," Francis said. "It didn't seem like we wanted to sacrifice in the second half."
Maryland totaled 20 second-half field goals in last week's two games, and it needs to adjust and respond better after the break. The Terps also could use a steadier hand from point guard Terrell Stokes, who leads the ACC in assist-to-turnover ratio despite having seven-to-eight last week.
Stokes got out of Williams' doghouse a year ago today, when he ended a six-game stint as a reserve with a start against N.C. State in Raleigh.
The Wolfpack (10-4, 1-2) was the worst rebounding team in the ACC last season, but now it ranks behind only North Carolina and Duke in rebounding margin. N.C. State's conference losses have come at Duke and No. 21 Clemson, where sophomore forward Kenny Inge made all seven of his field-goal attempts last Tuesday.
Adam Harrington, a 6-foot-5 wing from Bernardstown, Mass., who is averaging 14.3 points, is on track to become the first freshman to lead N.C. State in scoring. Season-ending back surgery to sophomore guard Archie Miller has left the Wolfpack thin in the ball-handling department, so Maryland will try to press point guard Justin Gainey before he can get N.C. State into its offense.
Lost in all of the hand-wringing over Maryland's half-court offense is the Terps' continually steady approach to defense. They have the best field-goal percentage defense in the ACC, and as long as that stays constant, they'll remain in position to make a run at Duke.
Williams has never lost to N.C. State at Cole, and his players don't see that streak ending today.
"It won't last long," Francis said, "if it was a lull."
NOTES: N.C. State does not have a senior on its roster. Williams will be introduced today as a 1999 inductee of the university's Athletic Hall of Fame. The induction ceremony will be held in May. N.C. State goes to the basket. The Wolfpack is taking 31.1 free throws per game, tops in the conference. Gainey had a career-high 16 points at Clemson. Stokes did not attempt a free throw in Maryland's first 14 games.
Opponent: N.C. State
Site: Cole Field House, College Park
Time: 1: 30 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)
Line: Maryland by 16 Pub Date: 1/10/99