Terps' roll sends fears tumbling; Response to 2 losses restores confidence for long NCAA dance; Coach's stern words heeded; First-ever top seed lies just out of No. 5's reach


The aftermath of Maryland's only losing streak in a distinctive basketball season included a challenge from coach Gary Williams.

The way Steve Francis put it after a blowout loss at Duke on Feb. 3, it was time for the Terps to put up or shut up. The response has been a noisy four-game roll in which Maryland made up for the loss of one of its most experienced players and reinvigorated what had become dwindling hope for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

"We're a very good basketball team," Williams said yesterday. "We had proven that before the Wake Forest and Duke games, and we wanted to make sure that no one on the team doubted that. We had shown that we could win consistently all year, and we just had to get back to that."

Williams' stern words about the direction of the Terps -- he told them they could be one of the best teams in school history or one of the biggest busts -- weren't directed so much at their inability to stay with the top-rated Blue Devils, but the lack of urgency they had displayed three days earlier in a loss to the Demon Deacons.

Consistency has been a strength in a campaign in which No. 5 Maryland is in line to eclipse the school record of 27 wins and notch its second-best winning percentage in Atlantic Coast Conference games. That flop at Wake Forest remains the only glaring example in 27 games of the Terps not showing up ready to play.

"Some of my first teams here were un dermanned," said Williams, Maryland's coach since 1989-90. "They just weren't good enough, but they came to play every game, and I was proud of that. In terms of very good teams, these guys really come to play. That's hard for good teams sometimes. There's a trend to assume that 'we're better, we don't have to play as hard,' but we've avoided that."

Emotion has been evident in the Terps' field-goal percentage defense in wins over N.C. State (.255); North Carolina (.404) and Georgia Tech (.338). All were accomplished after senior center Obinna Ekezie was replaced in the starting lineup by freshman Lonny Baxter, then had his college career ended by an Achilles' tendon injury.

Will that renewed resolve translate into Maryland's first-ever No. 1 seed?

The Terps are No. 4 in replicas of the Rating Percentage Index, the computer formula used by the NCAA to seed and select the teams. The NCAA claims that its RPI differs from those that circulate on the Internet, and that its main purpose is as a comparative tool.

That was evident to Maryland last season, when the Terps came out of the ACC tournament No. 7 in one RPI, but as a No. 4 seed by the NCAA, which rated 12 teams higher.

There is no prohibition against one conference receiving two No. 1 seeds. It happened just last year, with Duke and North Carolina. The Blue Devils were ACC regular-season champions, and the Tar Heels solidified their seed by winning the conference tournament.

Maryland might have to beat Duke in the ACC tournament final to get a No. 1 seed. Tournament director C. M. Newton reminded the media last week that as much credit as possible is given to regular-season champions, so that might be the only way for the Terps to pass the competition for the last two No. 1 seeds.

Fourteen straight wins made No. 3 Michigan State the Big Ten champion and a solid choice for a No. 1 seed, but the field is cramped for the other two top berths, where the rankings and RPI replicas disagree.

No. 2 Auburn (25-1), which plays at Arkansas tomorrow and Mississippi State on Saturday, did not have a ranked team on its nonconference schedule. The NCAA claims that history does not encroach on the process, but the Tigers were last in the tournament in 1988.

No. 4 Connecticut (24-2) finishes the regular season at Syracuse. Stanford (22-5), No. 6 in the rankings but No. 3 in the RPI, was hurt badly by a home loss to Southern California two weeks ago.

The Terps? Two of their four losses were to Duke, a near undisputed No. 1. Maryland (23-4) has a nonconference win over Stanford. It can reach 13 ACC victories for the first time ever with wins over Clemson at Cole Field House tomorrow and at Florida State on Saturday. Williams said those are the only outcomes he frets over.

"You can't worry about the RPI or rankings now," Williams said. "We just want to keep playing well."

NOTES: The Terps will be seeded second in the ACC tournament at the Charlotte Coliseum next week. The Terps open March 5 (2 p.m.) against the winner of a March 4 game between the seventh and eighth seeds. The top of the standings won't change in the last week of the regular season, as Duke will be seeded No. 1 and North Carolina No. 3.

Pub Date: 2/23/99

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