COLLEGE PARK - The Maryland Terrapins irritate coach Gary Williams in a variety of ways.
They throw the ball away too much, miss too many open shots, go through horrendous stretches at the free-throw line, and stumble into slow starts and scoring droughts on a regular basis. On most nights, putting together two strong halves of basketball has been impossible.
The Terps also are a delight to Williams. This team has learned to go all-out on defense, a trademark of Maryland teams in the coach's 15 years at the school. It has developed a stalwart presence in the paint, where Maryland rebounds and blocks shots better than any other team in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Terps almost always are a tough out.
Williams knew this season would be trying at times. From the top of the roster to the 12th man, he has never guided a team with this much inexperience. But, for all of the rough edges the Terps have revealed, their tenacity and resourcefulness have won him over.
"We have to get better in some areas. This isn't a good passing team. We have to get better at shooting. But, in terms of wanting to play hard every game, they're giving what they have," Williams said. "We've learned that if you play hard, you can make up for shortcomings. There's a way for every team to be good. You have to find a way to win."
For these Terps (13-7, 4-5 ACC), whose most consistent trait has been their inconsistency, winning has not been easy. It has often been torturous, such as in last week's 71-67 victory at Virginia. Maryland squandered chances to put the Cavaliers away at the foul line, then sweated things out until its defense closed the deal in the final seconds.
As they prepare to face No. 14 North Carolina today in Chapel Hill, the Terps are sitting in a good position. A victory would tie them for third place with Georgia Tech and Wake Forest in the hotly contested ACC, where only three teams entered the weekend with winning records in conference play. Four of Maryland's final seven games are at home.
An eighth consecutive 20-victory season appears unlikely. But Maryland, which looked wobbly after a recent home loss to North Carolina State dropped it to 2-5 in the ACC, has used its defense to spark a two-game winning streak that has the Terps back in the hunt for their 11th straight NCAA tournament berth.
"Early in the season, there were so many things going through our heads trying to learn the offense. Now it's getting a little more natural," said sophomore point guard John Gilchrist, who is emerging as the team's leader and go-to guy. "Everybody has that confidence and swagger. They know they're going to make the play, and that's big."
Maryland is a better team than the one that followed its earliest high point - an overtime victory over then-No. 15 Wisconsin that gave the Terps a 4-0 start - with a two-day flop in the BB&T; Classic. There the Terps absorbed an overtime loss to West Virginia and an 82-68 whipping by then-No. 17 Gonzaga.
But the Terps immediately showed their toughness three nights later on Dec. 10, when they stunned then-No. 1 Florida before a hostile crowd in Gainesville. Gradually since then, Maryland has become a deeper, more versatile squad. Watch them today with a deeper rotation of nine or 10 players.
In recent weeks, the emergence of freshman guard Mike Jones has given them a potent scoring and rebounding threat, although his defense and ball-handling still need plenty of work. Freshman guard D.J. Strawberry is an unsteady shooter, but he's also the team's top defensive spark off the bench.
The blossoming of 6-foot-10 freshman center Hassan Fofana has given Maryland a true enforcer on the blocks. Sophomore Travis Garrison and freshman Ekene Ibekwe have traded starting and backup assignments, strengthening the power forward position in the process.
"We have to go into every game thinking, if we don't win this game, it might keep us out of the NCAA tournament," said Garrison, who has recorded a career-high 10 rebounds in his past two games and is playing some of the most aggressive ball of his career. "If all 12 players go into each game like it's their last game, it's going to be hard to beat us."
By doing the dirty work - chasing down loose balls, pounding the offensive glass or hounding the passing lanes in their drop-back, man-to-man defense or picking their spots wisely to pounce with their full-court pressure - the Terps figure they can compete with anyone and cover their warts.
Maryland is as talented as it is uneven. Senior center Jamar Smith ran off a bunch of double doubles early against weak competition, then hit some walls against the ACC. Smith's scoring and rebounding spurts are invaluable, and no one gets to the foul line as often as he. Unfortunately for Maryland, his 43.2 percent free-throw shooting is not improving, and he stubbornly takes on too many double teams instead of passing to an open teammate.
Sophomore forward Nik Caner-Medley tends to dribble into turnovers and has had a rough time adjusting to guarding some of the quicker small forwards in the ACC. But his clutch scoring and rebounding have saved the Terps on a few nights. Sophomore guard Chris McCray is too shy as a shooter and has trouble creating his own shot. But without his defensive hustle, the Terps are not in the position they're in.
One thing appears certain. If Gilchrist has a bad night, the Terps usually follow suit. The 6-3 sophomore has become their most creative scorer and one of the grittiest rebounding guards in the ACC. But he also has more turnovers (41) than assists (39) in league play.
The way Williams sees it, if the Terps keep playing hard, the details will take care of themselves.
"We've hung in there, and that's what this team has to keep doing," he said. "Every time this team wins, we get a little more sure of ourselves. I don't think there's any easy way to get good."
Matchup: Maryland (13-7, 4-5 ACC) vs. No. 14 North Carolina (14-7, 4-6)
Site: Smith Center, Chapel Hill, N.C.
Time: 3:30 p.m.
TV/Radio: Chs. 2, 7/WBAL (1090 AM)