COLLEGE PARK -- The Maryland Terrapins know they are in for a battle as they try to maintain their climb in the fiercely competitive Atlantic Coast Conference standings and secure another berth in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
With seven games left in their regular season, the Terps are in a fourth-place tie with Wake Forest and have yet to reach the .500 mark in conference play. But, strange as it might appear, Maryland has positioned itself favorably to earn an 11th consecutive trip to the 65-team tournament, which includes 32 automatic qualifiers (conference champions) and 33 at-large teams.
Consider the Terps (13-7, 4-5) a bubble team with a lot going for it.
Maryland has beaten three Top 15 opponents, including then-No. 1 Florida on the road two months ago. And because of their strength of schedule, their corresponding No. 32 ranking in the Rating Percentage Index -- a formula used to seed teams for the NCAA tournament -- and the proven muscle of the ACC, the Terps probably would have to collapse to miss the postseason's ultimate event.
Four of Maryland's final seven regular-season games are at home, including dates against No. 15 Georgia Tech and No. 20 Wake Forest. A four-game sweep at Comcast Center alone would guarantee an 8-8 finish in the conference. That figures to land an NCAA bid easily in a year when the ACC has been the highest-rated conference in the nation all season.
And in the light of the league's power -- remember, for example, it crushed the Big Ten by winning seven of nine games in annual ACC-Big Ten Challenge -- this should be a year in which a 7-9 finish sufficiently will impress the NCAA tournament selection committee.
There is a strong possibility that six ACC teams will receive bids. Seven teams have never been selected, although there is an outside shot of that happening. All of which strengthens Maryland's prospects.
Jim Sukup, the editor and publisher of The RPI Report, which compiles a weekly RPI ranking of the nation's 326 Division I basketball schools, said a likely middle-of-the-pack ACC team such as Maryland should fare favorably come Selection Sunday.
"Right now, it would be nearly impossible for [the ACC] to lose that place [as the highest-rated conference], because they play each other from now on. I wouldn't say no to seven teams going at this point," Sukup said. "And if you're in the top 30 [in the RPI], you're in [the tournament]."
Maryland, which has been ranked briefly this season, also has road games left against top-ranked Duke, No. 21 North Carolina State and No. 14 North Carolina. The Terps, on a two-game winning streak, face the Tar Heels on Sunday on the road.
"We never talk about it, but the players are human. They know, and if they want to use [making the NCAAs] as motivation to play well, that's fine," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, who has said he thinks 17 overall victories should get the Terps into the NCAAs.
"We've hung in there. Now, it comes down to, if you're going to be successful, you have to win at home. There's a lot of teams this time of year in the mix for NCAA picks. But what the conference did this year was prove ourselves in December. It's numbers, not an opinion. This is the best conference. If that's true, we should get six or seven teams in the NCAA tournament."
Duke, North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and N.C. State are in the RPI top 30, while Maryland is on the cusp of shoo-in territory. Two more victories over ranked opponents would seal the deal. And Maryland is in excellent shape if it simply maintains its RPI position area.
Sukup said that, since 1991, teams ranked between 31 and 40 in the RPI have made the NCAA tournament 84.7 percent of the time. Fifty-six percent of teams ranked between 41 and 50 have made it. Only 25.3 percent of teams ranked from 51 through 60 have received a tournament invitation.
Should the Terps finish 7-9 in the conference, there is precedent working in their favor. Wake Forest (1992), Virginia (1997) and Clemson (1996 and 1998) received NCAA at-large bids with 7-9 league records. Florida State (1998) is the only ACC school to get into the NCAAs with a 6-10 mark.
The ACC has placed six teams in the tournament in eight different years, beginning in 1986. It last happened in 2001.
"We've just got to keep cementing wins and keep it going," Maryland point guard John Gilchrist said.
Five ACC teams in the mix
Duke is alone at the top. N.C. State is alone in second place. Then there are five closely packed ACC teams, including Maryland, jockeying for position in the standings and the NCAA tournament.
Record: 18-5, 5-4
Trouble spots ahead: Maryland, Duke (road); Wake Forest, N.C. State (home)
Record: 13-7, 4-5
Top 25 wins: Florida (No. 1), UNC, Wisconsin
Trouble spots ahead: Duke, UNC, N.C. State (road); Wake, Georgia Tech (home)
Record: 13-6, 4-5
Top 25 win: North Carolina
Trouble spots ahead: Georgia Tech, Maryland (road); Duke, N.C. State (home)
Record: 14-7, 4-6
Top 25 wins: Illinois, UConn (No. 1), Wake, Georgia Tech
Trouble spots ahead: N.C. State, Duke (road); Maryland, Florida State (home)
Record: 16-8, 4-6
Top 25 wins: Maryland, UNC, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech
Trouble spots ahead: UNC, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech (road); Duke (home)
Next for Terps
Matchup: Maryland (13-7, 4-5 ACC) vs. No. 14 North Carolina (14-7, 4-6)
Site: Smith Center, Chapel Hill, N.C.
When: Sunday, 3:30 p.m.
TV/Radio: Chs. 2, 7/WBAL (1090 AM)
The ACC rules
According to The RPI Report, the Atlantic Coast Conference is the best in men's college basketball this season. A conference's power rating is measured by three factors - each team's winning percentage against Division I opponents, opponents' winning percentage against Division I teams, and the strength of schedule of the opponents of each ACC opponent. Here is how the top 10 leagues stack up:
No. Conf. ........ Rating ........... No. Conf......... Rating
1. ACC............. .6207 .......... 6. Big Ten........ .5585
2. SEC............. .6064 .......... 7. Mount. West. .5570
3. Big East...... .5850 ........... 8. Pac-10.......... .5488
5. Conf. USA.... .5612 ............10. WAC ............ .5317