The Maryland Terrapins will spend this week playing two games they should win and could lose, in the process revealing much about the course of the rest of their season.
Will the Terps sprint into March on a roll, carrying a winning streak, a fat record and the intimidating presence they exhibited earlier in the season? Or will the mild funk in which they have lost two of their past three games persist?
Tonight's game against North Carolina State at Reynolds Coliseum will start the process of answering those questions; even though the Terps pounded the Wolfpack last month at Cole Field House, they're never a lock on the road in the Atlantic Coast Conference, as their loss at Wake Forest demonstrated.
Then comes another yardstick game against North Carolina on Saturday at Cole; even though the Tar Heels are down a notch this year and the Terps beat them last month in Chapel Hill, they still carry a No. 12 national ranking and haven't lost home-and-home to the Terps since 1990.
The Terps should go 2-0 this week if their No. 7 national ranking is accurate, and they need to go 2-0 if they're going to start building momentum for March.
"It's very important to go into the [NCAA] tournament at the top of your game," Terps coach Gary Williams said yesterday.
Anything less than 2-0 would support the idea that the Terps have slipped a bit from their highs of December and Jan uary, a notion Williams seemed to endorse yesterday when he said "we have gone up and down with our confidence [lately]."
Yes, they're entitled to a slump like anyone else, especially since they already have won 20 games and are zeroing in on a probable No. 2 NCAA tournament seed. Their only lament is they can't beat Duke. Other teams would love to have such problems.
But with only five games left until the start of the ACC tournament, the Terps had better make sure they're beyond any slumps or a big, ugly fall at the wrong time could happen.
Williams addressed the issue after the Terps' second loss to Duke last week. He defended the team in public, but challenged them privately to gather themselves and still make the most of this season of great expectations.
Their 16-point win over Virginia on Saturday at Cole was the first day of the rest of their lives, a step in the right direction. But now comes the real test. On the road at 15-8 N.C. State. At home against 19-6 Carolina.
Can the Terps sweep two games from teams pointing toward the NCAA tournament?
Not that, say, a split of the games would cause great damage to their ranking and NCAA seeding. Only a complete collapse would cause the Terps to fall far, and they're too good for that.
But they're also too good to meander through February. Nor can they do that and just expect the light to come back on in March. They need to be get back to their confident, high-flying, winning ways.
It wouldn't be fair to expect so much if the Terps hadn't set such a high standard all season, but they haven't spent a day outside of the Top 10, or, for that matter, the top seven. They're different, a special team capable of accomplishing more.
Not that anyone should expect the same swagger exhibited in December, before two losses to Duke by a combined 36 points. Those were humbling experiences that put the Terps in their place.
But letting those losses cast a pall over the rest of a fine season would be a colossal waste. That was Williams' point in challenging the team last week. Then Williams stirred the air with his benching of Obinna Ekezie against Virginia. It worked. Freshman replacement Lonny Baxter played well, Ekezie raised his game off the bench and the whole team seemed to wake up.
"I wanted to get Obinna's attention, but I also wanted our team to understand that we had to play differently than we had in the prior two [losses]," Williams said. "It was hard to do. Obinna has been a starter since he was a freshman. I don't like doing that with a senior. But I felt we had to change something, and it worked well. Whether that's a permanent change remains to be seen. If we can continue to play with the momentum we got from the Virginia game, I'll be very happy."
The Terps are still going to need Ekezie down the line, whether he's starting or coming off the bench. You always need your seniors in March.
"Obinna's rebounding had gotten tentative and he was hesitant in the post," Williams said. "He played better on Saturday. Hopefully, he'll keep that up."
But with or without Ekezie, the Terps need to find a way to win tonight and Saturday and re-establish themselves as a top team, one that daunts opponents and blisters those who can't keep up.
It needs to happen, sooner rather than later.
Pub Date: 2/10/99