COLLEGE PARK -- Over its previous 10 seasons, Maryland has never finished lower than in a fourth-place tie in the Atlantic Coast Conference men's basketball standings. Not coincidentally during that stretch, the Terrapins have earned an NCAA tournament berth every year.
These days, as they cope with a struggle that reflects their youth and inexperience, the Terps are trying to worry exclusively about their next opponent, without getting too caught up in the tradition they badly want to maintain.
Maryland (11-7, 2-5) can no longer shrug off the hole it has fallen into, and if there ever was a must-win assignment in early February, tonight's visit to Charlottesville to face the Virginia Cavaliers is it.
Do the Terps ever need another boost in the confidence department, as the conference schedule reaches its midpoint. Sunday's discouraging 81-69 home loss to N.C. State marked Maryland's fourth defeat in its past five outings and dropped the Terps into a seventh-place tie with the Cavs (12-6, 2-5) in the ACC.
A victory would push the Terps upward, give them their second road win in league play and would set up Maryland nicely -- five of its last eight regular-season games are at Comcast Center -- as it tries to position itself for an 11th straight NCAA tournament bid. A loss would send Maryland into the conference cellar with Clemson.
"Right now, we're not doing anything particularly well. We're playing just good enough to lose, it seems," Maryland coach Gary Williams said.
"The effort is there, in terms of how hard we're playing. We just have to be a little smarter, learn how to play together a little bit better. Hopefully, we're making strides in that direction. We have to learn how to finish. We haven't done that yet, and we're paying a price for that."
At this point, Maryland's record of seven consecutive 20-victory seasons is definitely in jeopardy. For now, the Terps would be well-served to avoid their first three-game losing streak and first 1-5 skid since February 2001. Maryland righted itself in dramatic fashion after those stumbles and finished with a 10-2 kick that ended with the school's first Final Four appearance.
That team had proven veterans such as Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter. This team is still searching for consistency at both ends of the floor and still lacks a steady, go-to guy. One night it's senior center Jamar Smith. The next it's sophomore point guard John Gilchrist or sophomore forward Nik Caner-Medley.
This team still has too many turnover spurts, too many scoring droughts and too little offensive production out of its shooting guard, and it has a nagging tendency to start slowly in one or both halves.
"I wouldn't say we're in trouble yet. Every game we play we have a chance to win," said sophomore guard Chris McCray, who is averaging just 10.2 points and has failed to reach double figures in six of his past seven games. "We can't give up on ourselves. We have to keep on fighting."
The Terps can count on getting a good fight from Virginia, which is still porous on defense and still has a terrible time on the road. But the Cavaliers usually bring something approaching their A game to University Hall, where they are 10-2 and have produced both of their ACC victories.
Virginia, which has been camped in the ACC's lower division in recent years, is not the most physical team. But it has a number of three-point shooting threats in junior forward Elton Brown (15.1 ppg), senior guard Todd Billet (10.7) and junior forward Devin Smith (12.4). The Cavaliers also are coming off a season sweep of Maryland a year ago, and they have defeated the Terps in Charlottesville in three of the past four years.
"I have no comment," said Virginia coach Pete Gillen, when asked about the Terps' recent problems. "I'm up to my eyeballs, just trying to get out of my office. All I know is Maryland has tremendous talent. They'll be fine."
After the N.C. State loss, Williams sorted through a possible scenario under which Maryland still could string together 17 regular-season victories, which he thinks would be enough to get the Terps into the big tournament. With the ACC looking so strong as the nation's top-rated league, a 7-9 record could do the trick.
But before the Terps get that far ahead of themselves, they simply need to win. Right now.
"We know if we can get it going, we still have a chance to get into the mix in the upper division of the league, and we're going to try to do that," Williams said.
Matchup: Maryland (11-7, 2-5 ACC) vs. Virginia (12-6, 2-5)
Site: University Hall, Charlottesville
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)