DURHAM, N.C. -- The message in the Maryland locker room late Wednesday night was not sugarcoated.
The No. 7 Terps can continue to stumble through the second half of the Atlantic Coast Conference schedule, or they can revisit the team concepts and fulfill the potential they showed in their first 20 games. They can be remembered as one of the biggest busts in school history, or they can rebound and be a force in March.
"That's what I told them," coach Gary Williams said as the Terps cleared out after their fourth straight lopsided loss to Duke. "You get ranked high, and people's expectations change for a team. You have a chance to turn it around and have a great season. If we don't have a great season, people will be disappointed."
There wasn't much difference in the rebounding totals and shooting percentages in a 95-77 loss to the No. 2 and climbing Blue Devils. The Terps could dwell on three-point shooting, in which Duke had a 27-12 scoring advantage, or the matchup at power forward, where sophomore Terence Morris was outplayed by Shane Battier.
Williams and his backcourt, however, pointed to intangibles. This is the most talented team he has had in his 10 seasons at Maryland, but Duke's roster has a more impressive pedigree. The Blue Devils can't be caught without the proper work ethic, and the Terps have not delivered in that department lately.
"I think we can go harder in practice," Williams said.
Senior point Terrell Stokes said it was simple, that the Terps were outhustled by the Blue Devils.
"The rebounds, the loose balls, the toughness, that was the difference," Stokes said. "It all starts in practice. We have to practice going after the ball harder. It all comes down to a matter of pride. That was the difference. They went after the ball harder."
Junior guard Steve Francis said Duke has greater resolve.
"They [Duke] proved in the first two games that they want to win more than we do," Francis said. "We have to look at ourselves in the mirror. It's not up to the coaches. We have to believe in ourselves. If everyone comes back with the right attitude, we'll prove that we can play with anybody in the country."
There are indications that the Terps haven't dealt properly with the distractions of Francis' rumored departure for the NBA, and the professional aspirations of the seniors. If the veterans haven't lived and played in the present lately, the rest of a young ACC has, and the final six games of the regular season could be interesting.
Mentioned as a possible No. 1 seed for the NCAAs two weeks ago, lately the Terps have looked like the kind of unfocused outfit that doesn't get past the first weekend of the tournament. They can still earn a No. 2 seed for only the second time, but they had better improve, because the competition in the ACC has.
Next up is Virginia, tomorrow at 1 p.m. at Cole Field House. A month ago, who thought that the Terps would be on a losing streak and the Cavaliers would come up with three straight wins?
Maryland needs to get some momentum going. It still has road trips to N.C. State, Georgia Tech and Florida State, teams that are fighting for NCAA berths. The Terps suddenly look vulnerable, and they had better assume the fighting posture they had before they began to acquiesce in a Jan. 19 win over the Yellow Jackets.
The second half of the conference schedule has seen Maryland collapse in Tobacco Road visits to Wake Forest and Duke, and every opponent the rest of the way is familiar with Maryland's tendencies.
The Terps aren't making the extra pass that was an early strength, in part because their half-court motion has slowed. Their vaunted transition game has stalled. A team that thrives on pressure defense, Maryland had four steals at Wake Forest and six at Duke, two of its four lowest totals of the season.
Compounding matters, the Terps' board schemes have developed flaws.
Francis and Stokes had seven rebounds apiece at Duke, a combined 11 at the defensive end, and it is impossible to run with your point guard under the basket. Senior center Obinna Ekezie had two rebounds. His average in ACC games is 4.4, and Williams scoffed at his suggestion that the Terps' problems are tactical.
"Oh, really? How many rebounds did he have?" said Williams, of the need for greater tenacity from his big men. "Lonny Baxter is a good example of that. He's just playing hard right now. He doesn't always do the right things, but he's playing hard."
Williams said he has no plans to shake up a lineup that has started all 23 games.
Stokes has had a trying week. Gertie Brown, the grandmother who helped raise him in Philadelphia, died over the weekend. He didn't practice Monday or Tuesday, and Williams let him decide if he was ready to play against Duke. His six assists to two turnovers were not the problem.
This week has brought the first adversity Maryland has faced this season, which began with 10 straight wins. It can slide back to the middle of a mediocre pack in the ACC, or respond and be remembered as one of the program's best teams ever.
Next for Terps
Site: Cole Field House, College Park
When: Tomorrow, 1 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)
Pub Date: 2/05/99