Terps' 6th sense is upbeat

THE BALTIMORE SUN

COLLEGE PARK - Three nights ago, the Maryland Terrapins were a discouraged, bickering bunch after a lackluster, losing performance against North Carolina in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.

Nothing like a friendly welcome into the NCAA tournament to get the good feelings flowing again.

No. 14 Maryland will open the defense of its first national championship as the sixth seed in the South Regional on Friday night, when the Terps play the 11th-seeded UNC-Wilmington Seahawks at the Gaylord Entertainment Center in Nashville, Tenn.

The Terps, who are embarking on their 10th consecutive NCAA tournament, are seeded lower than any Maryland team since 1996. That year, the seventh-seeded Terps lost to No. 10 seed Santa Clara in the first round.

Last night's tournament draw brought the smiles back to Maryland's faces, beginning with senior guard Drew Nicholas, who criticized his teammates after Friday night's debacle in Greensboro. That gave the Terps (19-9) their third two-game losing streak of the season.

Nicholas insisted that, after a players' meeting and a chance to start over again in the next season, all was right in Maryland's world. Nicholas also was pleased with the Terps' fortune, courtesy of the NCAA tournament selection committee.

"Teams like to be consistent, but there's nothing wrong with getting hot in March. We've played badly at some points during the regular season, but everybody has," Nicholas said.

"Everyone has to step up and play a little harder, from me on down to the 12th man. Just play hard. Everything this week is going to be positive. There's not going to be any negative energy in our locker room or on the practice floor. We're together. This is a new season. This is the real postseason. I really like our bracket."

All in all, the Terps could not have asked for a better postseason road, even though their past two losses at Virginia and against Carolina probably cost them a No. 4 seed. For starters, the Terps don't have to travel very far.

First, Maryland must eliminate the Seahawks (24-6) - the Colonial Athletic Association champions who upset Southern California in the first round last year and are led by guard Brett Blizzard, the CAA Player of the Year. Blizzard has averaged 21.3 points on 46.3 percent shooting in 35.2 minutes a game.

With a victory, Maryland would figure to face third-seeded Xavier, led by senior center and first team All-America candidate David West. Looming ahead in the South Regional in San Antonio could be a rematch with No. 2 seed Florida, which beat the Terps, 69-64, at Comcast Center on Dec. 14.

"A six seed is fine. We didn't play well the last two games, and I think that had an impact on our seed," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "You can't complain. Nashville is fine. Our fans will have a chance to get there. I think we were sent out West six out of eight years. This guy will never take this for granted, even though we've been to 10 straight. This is a big deal."

The Terps are one of only six teams to make 10 consecutive NCAA tournaments, with Arizona, Cincinnati, Indiana, Kansas and Kentucky being the others. Maryland is 5-5 against this year's 65-team tournament field.

Maryland will spend the next few days trying to reverse the latest turn in a twisty season. The Terps, after winning five of six games and making a serious bid for their second straight regular-season ACC crown, dropped an overtime decision at sixth-seeded Virginia. Then came the 84-72 loss to the seventh-seeded Tar Heels in the conference tournament.

Getting the big men to play big will among the primary chores during Maryland's preparation.

Senior center Ryan Randle is coming off a one-point, two-rebound showing, and has just 20 points and 10 rebounds in his past two games combined. Senior power forward Tahj Holden has been ineffective in his past two games, after scoring a career-high 20 points in a 68-65, come-from-behind victory at N.C. State.

"I've got to step it up and try to be a leader. I haven't played the way I usually can play," said Randle, who committed four fouls and played only 13 minutes against Carolina. "I hit a wall. I've got to get out of that."

"As evidenced by our last two games, the team goes as [the frontcourt] goes," Holden added. "We've got to come out and play our best. We have to bring it all together."

Williams likes the fact that Maryland has shown it can bounce back from adversity. After losing to Notre Dame and Florida during an early 1-3 stretch, the Terps won 10 of 11 games, including a 15-point victory over then top-ranked Duke. Then, after losing two straight to Virginia and Georgia Tech, Maryland won five out of six, including a 23-point rout of Wake Forest.

Now comes the latest challenge, and the Terps can't afford a loss in a single-elimination format.

"It's not like we were on a roll all year. We've had to come back from some tough situations. That's what gives us confidence right now," said Williams, who also said the harmony is intact in the Maryland locker room.

"They were just frustrated for losing to Carolina," he said. "We're men. The family is the family. If anybody comes after us, we're together. That's what's important."

Added senior guard Calvin McCall: "It's a whole new season right now. It's one-and-done, and everyone is excited about it. This is a close team. We want to win, and we're all together."

SOUTH

TOP SEED

TEXAS

Record: 22-6

Regional skinny: The Longhorns could get an early test against LSU, which has beaten Arizona and Florida. The Gators and Maryland could meet in the third round.

EAST

TOP SEED

OKLAHOMA

Record: 24-6

Regional skinny: Looking for its first title, Oklahoma begins far from home. Wake Forest and Syracuse could be interesting as Josh Howard and Carmelo Anthony match up.

MIDWEST

TOP SEED

KENTUCKY

Record: 29-3

Regional skinny: Surging Kentucky may not be tested immediately, but awaiting them in later rounds could be Big East champion Pittsburgh and talented Marquette.

WEST

TOP SEED

ARIZONA

Record: 25-3

Regional skinny: Arizona stands tall at the top, but the real intrigue is at the bottom of the bracket. How about a Sweet 16 matchup between Duke and Kansas?

Next for Terps

Matchup: No. 6 seed Maryland (19-9) vs. No. 11 seed North Carolina-Wilmington (24-6) in NCAA South Regional first round

Site: Gaylord Entertainment Center, Nashville, Tenn.

When: Friday, 9:55 p.m. approximately

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)

Maryland streak

Maryland is one of six schools on a current streak of 10 or more consecutive NCAA tournament appearances:

School ................ Streak ............. Years

Arizona ................... 19 ............. 1985-2003

Indiana ................... 18 ..............1986-2003

Kansas ................... 14 ..............1990-2003

Cincinnati.................12 ...............1992-2003

Kentucky ................ 12 ...............1992-2003

Maryland ................. 10 ..............1994-2003

Terps' seedings

The Terps' regional seedings during their 10-year run:

Year ............ Seed ............ Year ............ Seed

1994 ............. 10th ............ 1999 .............. 2nd

1995 ...............3rd ............. 2000 ................3rd

1996 ...............7th ............. 2001 ................3rd

1997 ...............5th ............. 2002 ................1st

1998 ...............4th ............. 2003 ................6th

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