COLLEGE PARK - Although three weeks and six games remain before their postseason begins, the Maryland Terrapins are acutely aware that tonight's result largely could dictate their fate as defending Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season champions.
A victory over the Demon Deacons would catapult Maryland (15-6, 7-3) back into first place by a half game over Wake Forest, which secured its hold on the league's top spot with Thursday's foul-marred, double-overtime victory over Duke.
A defeat would drop the Terps two games behind the Demon Deacons (17-3, 7-2) in the loss column, while Maryland would be facing three of its final five games on the perilous journey known as the road in the ACC, starting with a trip to No. 8 Duke on Wednesday. Maryland will be seeking its first regular-season sweep of the Blue Devils since the 1994-95 season.
A victory over Wake Forest would give the Terps their second win over a ranked opponent, strengthening the defending NCAA champion's potential seeding position in the national tournament. A loss would drop Maryland's mark against ranked teams to 1-4.
And a victory tonight would provide a huge psychological boost to a team that saw its midseason momentum tumble during a recent, two-game losing streak, which included a stunning, come-from-ahead loss at home to Virginia. The Terps stopped the slide with a hard-fought, 74-72 victory at Florida State on Wednesday.
A loss likely would drop the Terps out of the top 20, just two weeks after Maryland had reached a high-water mark at No. 8.
"I've always found it's easier to lose momentum than it is to gain momentum. Confidence is a fragile thing," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "All you can do is try to win the next game, and we happen to be playing the first-place team at home. We have to take advantage of that situation. But the way the league has gone this year, you can't predict anything."
With the home court proving to be especially precious in this year's parity-driven ACC, if Maryland is to prevent Wake Forest from matching it with a league-leading three road victories in conference play, the Terps must snap out of a recent shooting slump, play better transition defense than they have displayed of late and must counter the Demon Deacons on the boards.
Recall last month's 81-72 loss in Winston-Salem, during which Wake jumped Maryland on the glass and sprinted to a 17-point, second-half lead before the Terps closed the gap to two points with their only good stretch of play all night.
The Demon Deacons, led by one of the nation's top players in versatile senior small forward Josh Howard (18.8 points a game, 8.2 rebounds a game), have parlayed strong free-throw shooting and dogged work on the glass into an excellent season, despite having only two seniors.
No one pounds the boards better. Wake Forest, which is 3-2 against ranked teams, leads the ACC at the foul line (76.2 percent), has out-rebounded every opponent and tops the nation with a whopping rebounding margin advantage of 12.5. Consider that three Demon Deacons have recorded at least 50 offensive rebounds, with freshman center Eric Williams having produced 49.
Conversely, senior center Ryan Randle, Maryland's leading rebounder, has 55 offensive rebounds and is the only Terp with more than 40.
"I'm not going to say [Wake] likes to throw it up on the backboard and go get it, but anytime they miss, you can assure yourself they've got four guys coming [after the rebound]," said Maryland senior guard Drew Nicholas, the team's leading scorer (17.9).
"The great rebounders don't take no for an answer. They think they can get every rebound," Williams added. "We have to get off the floor and compete. We didn't do that the first time we played them."
Maryland also wants to reverse other recent trends. In the past three games, the Terps have struggled to maintain an offensive flow inside and have shot just 41 percent. They needed a heroic finish by senior point guard Steve Blake - making his school-record, 127th start tonight - to avoid a catastrophe at Florida State.
The Terps, who allowed a combined 52.3 percent shooting in back-to-back losses to Virginia and Georgia Tech, also need to contain Howard.
The Demon Deacons, who are getting steady contributions from forward Vytas Danelius (13.0 ppg, 7.9 rpg) and backup forward Jamaal Levy (7.4 ppg, 6.3 rpg), also have gotten more lift with the comeback of backup point guard Justin Gray, who returned after missing a month with a broken jaw to drop 18 points on Duke.
"They're a good team. They've mastered rebounding to an art. They're physical down low. They have good shooters, they have good chemistry, and Josh Howard is the one who makes them go," Maryland freshman point guard John Gilchrist said. "They're sitting pretty good on top of the ACC. We're aiming for that spot. We want that back."
Matchup:No. 16 Maryland (15-6) vs. No. 15 Wake Forest (17-3)
Site:Comcast Center, College Park
TV/Radio:Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)
Line: Maryland by 8