COLLEGE PARK - It's a little too soon for the Maryland Terrapins to get near any panic buttons. But if a few more stumbles occur in the near future, the Terps might begin to sweat profusely.
Losing to top-ranked Duke at home on Wednesday did not shock Maryland, although getting to within three points in the final minute before falling to the Blue Devils, 68-60, left the Terps with a what-might-have-been feeling.
Maryland (10-5) is about to confront a perilous part of its season. First, the Terps, 1-3 in Atlantic Coast Conference play for the first time in four years, must travel to Clemson on Sunday and try to avoid their first three-game losing streak since February 2001. Maryland must deal with a physical Tigers team at Littlejohn Coliseum, which often is a nasty, noisy place.
That is merely the first test in a four-game stretch that will send the Terps on the road three times. The ride includes a visit on Thursday to No. 10 Wake Forest, which just had its 24-game home winning streak ended by No. 11 Georgia Tech.
Maryland has not opened with a 1-4 ACC mark since 1993. That was the last year the Terps failed to make the NCAA tournament, and the last year the Terps failed to finish as high as fourth place in the regular-season standings.
"It's not something we need to panic [about], but we definitely have to win some games," sophomore forward Nik Caner-Medley said.
"It's a big mountain, but we're all good players," sophomore reserve forward Travis Garrison added. "We have to show everybody where this team is really at."
Fifteen games into the season, the league's youngest team is still working out the kinks, patching up problems in one area only to spring a leak somewhere else.
Maryland has improved its shooting from the field and at the free-throw line. The Terps remain the conference leaders in blocked shots, have sharpened their overall defense, and have revealed a dynamic playmaker in sophomore John Gilchrist.
Coming into the Duke game, the Terps were leading the league in rebounding margin and had the ACC's's top rebounder in senior center Jamar Smith (10.9 per game). That advantage vanished Wednesday, as Duke overcame pedestrian shooting by grabbing 24 offensive rebounds. The Terps had 10.
That wasted Maryland's 50 percent shooting in the second half. It resulted in too many extra shots, of which no Duke player took better advantage than guard J.J. Redick, who scored a season-high 26 points.
"Sometimes the ball comes off the rim at crazy angles, and you're not in the right place at the right time," Gilchrist said. "But you still have to get there. We'd play good defense [against Duke], they'd miss a shot, there would be a loose ball, they'd pick it up and shoot. Killer baskets."
The Terps have no choice but to take a deep breath and plunge into a killer phase of an up-and-down season, which is something coach Gary Williams expected with the most inexperienced team he has coached during his 15 years at Maryland.
"I don't get discouraged. I just thought we had a chance coming into the [Duke] game," Williams said. "People say we have a young team, but I want to win this year."
Since losing at Clemson on three straight visits from 1996 through December 1997, the Terps have won five straight at Littlejohn, escaping a defensive slugfest a year ago, 52-47.
Guard Chris McCray, who has struggled with his scoring lately, sounded desperate.
"We've got to start digging down now. It's 11 straight Maryland teams that went to the NCAAs [actually 10], and now we're putting this school in jeopardy. We could be one of the worst teams in 11 years. I don't want to be like that."