COLLEGE PARK - The Maryland Terrapins have lost three of their past four games, but their coach senses momentum building at an ideal time.
In the eyes of Gary Williams, the youngest men's basketball team in the Atlantic Coast Conference is still making too many mistakes, especially in the turnover department. But the glass-is-half-full side of Williams watches the Terps hold Duke to a season-low 68 points on 33.8 percent shooting, then sees Maryland blitz No. 19 Wake Forest with 53 first-half points by running near-flawless offense, and he believes the puzzle coming together.
Put aside the fact that the Terps (11-6) lost both games, are 2-4 in the ACC for the first time in four years and are in seventh place as they near the mid-point in conference play.
Williams thinks the Terps are advancing in an unforgiving league, although they have yet to show the necessary consistency over a 40-minute stretch. Among their tests against four ranked ACC teams, Maryland has lost at home to Duke, beaten North Carolina at home, and dropped road games to Wake and Georgia Tech, after going nose-to-nose with the Yellow Jackets for 30 minutes. And the Terps have yet to embarrass themselves.
"This is a good year for me as a coach," said Williams, who is two years removed from winning a regular-season ACC crown and the school's only national title. "I'm a realist. There are no easy wins. You just have to win the games you can win and move on, and if you don't, you can't get down. We're coming along."
If the Terps are going to make a move, now might be the time. Two of their next three games are at home, with a trip to last-place Virginia sandwiched in between on Wednesday.
Today's test against North Carolina State should provide a good yardstick by which to judge Maryland's progress. The Wolfpack (11-5, 4-2 ACC) has been camped in the upper regions of the leagues, partly because of a somewhat kind early-season schedule, mainly because of having a collection of skilled, versatile players led by guard/forwards Julius Hodge and Marcus Melvin and forward Ilian Evtimov.
Then there is the State style, which runs counter to the up-and-down, free-flowing ways that dominate the ACC. The Wolfpack runs a grinding, motion offense designed to milk the shot clock and wear down opposing defenses with an endless array of picks and backdoor cuts. It isn't pretty, but it has been effective, and it will test Maryland's poise.
Wolfpack coach Herb Sendek, who has not won in nine previous tries in College Park and is 1-5 on the road overall this season, employs a host of players without true positions. Hodge, 6 feet 7, leads the team in scoring (17.3 ppg.), but often brings the ball up and leads the team in assists. Melvin, 6-8, is the Wolfpack's best rebounder (7.7 rpg.), and is their most potent three-point shooter.
Then there is Evtimov, the 6-7 Bulgarian who is struggling with his outside shooting but is second on the team in assists. He can do a little bit of everything.
"That's why [the Wolfpack] is good. Some of their best ball-handlers are guys who play [power forward or center]," said Williams, who has never lost to N.C. State at home. "You can't describe [Evtimov], other than he's a basketball player. To me, that's the supreme compliment."
The Terps think they can grind out a victory today. They are second in the league in field-goal percentage defense (.374), they are improving notably at the free-throw line, and their bench is growing up fast.
Sophomore forward Travis Garrison, who was replaced by freshman Ekene Ibekwe four weeks ago, is playing his best, most aggressive basketball of the season. He has scored 24 points and shot 12-for-14 at the foul line over his past two games. Freshman 6-10 center Hassan Fofana, who has trimmed down to 275 pounds, has given the Terps a hefty presence in the paint for a combined 22 minutes in the past two games.
Those two were part of a 10-man crew that helped the Terps overcome early foul trouble and take a 53-43 halftime lead at Wake Forest on Thursday.
Besides trying to guide his team through a consistent showing, Williams also plans to publicly address a peripheral problem the university's athletic department has been dealing with lately. The school is trying to curtail the use of profanity - vocal or written - by its student section. The problem has cropped up especially at Duke games in recent years, and it returned at Maryland's previous home game on Jan. 21 against the Blue Devils.
The school's legal counsel, hesitant to ban the use of profanity because of freedom of speech rights under the First Amendment - the Terps play in a public building - has consulted with the state attorney general's office in an effort to address the problem. Williams said he plans to speak to the students section today before tip-off.
"It's rampant throughout the country. We seem to get more attention than other places. You should have heard some of the stuff the fans were yelling at D.J. Strawberry when we were at Florida [on Dec. 10]," Williams said. "But I have to try [to stop it]. We don't need that small percentage [of fans] to hurt what we've done here in the last 10 years. We don't need that to be good."
Charity stripe benefits
A look at Maryland's improved free-throw shooting:
Conference FTM FTA Pct.
Nonconf. 152 261 58.2
ACC 96 137 70.1
Note-11 nonconference games; 6 conference games, 5 since Jan. 14.
Matchup: N.C. State (11-5, 4-2 ACC) vs. Maryland (11-6, 2-4)
Site: Comcast Center, College Park
Time: 2 p.m.
TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)