COLLEGE PARK - If the Maryland Terrapins are going to make a move upward in the Atlantic Coast Conference standings and secure a spot in next month's NCAA tournament, they probably can't afford to wait any longer.
With road games remaining against No. 3 Duke and No. 13 North Carolina State, each of whom already has disposed of the Terps in College Park, home-court advantage could not be more precious to Maryland, which also must play host to No. 15 Wake Forest in nine days.
In the ACC, which features five of the nation's top 18 teams, has five teams clogging up the middle of the standings who are separated by one game, and is easily the top-rated conference in the country, an 8-8, regular-season finish should get any team into the NCAAs. A 7-9 league record also figures to draw serious respect from the tournament selection committee.
In other words, if seventh-place Maryland (13-8, 4-6) fails to beat the third-place Yellow Jackets (18-6, 5-5), the Terps probably would have to sweep their final three home games to finish with a 7-9 conference mark heading into the ACC tournament.
Maryland, which is coming off a 97-86 loss at North Carolina, where the Terps spotted the Tar Heels a 22-point lead after playing possibly their worst opening half of the season, is running out of wiggle room. Tonight would be a fine time for the Terps to knock off a ranked opponent. Maryland, 3-5 against such teams, has not beaten one in five weeks.
"You just have to take care of business when you have the chance," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "This year, it's when you play at home."
History suggests Maryland is in pretty good shape against the Yellow Jackets. Tech has not won at Maryland since 1994, has not swept a season series against the Terps since 1993 and is 1-4 in league play on the road after dropping an 82-80 decision at eighth-place Virginia on Saturday.
Then again, history is a dangerous yardstick to apply to these Terps. Their inconsistent ways were never more on display than on Sunday at Carolina, where Maryland generated a frantic, second-half recovery and pulled to within three points before capitulating to the Tar Heels.
"We've been good, in terms of showing up [and working hard] at practice, no matter what happens [in the previous game]. You think you have everything ready to go, then you play like you did in the first half of the Carolina game. You don't know where that comes from," Williams said.
"We've had a way of putting a lot of pressure on our defense. You can only stop a team so many times, then you have to put the ball in the basket."
Few conference teams are as scoring-impaired as Maryland. The Terps rank last in the league in field-goal shooting percentage (.444) and free-throw shooting percentage (.612) and are seventh in three-point percentage (.336). They rank seventh in assists and assist-to-turnover ratio
They don't get steady inside production from senior center Jamar Smith, junior power forward Travis Garrison or sophomore forward Nik Caner-Medley and have relied too much on sophomore point guard John Gilchrist to create offense on his own.
Their shooting guard, sophomore Chris McCray, is shooting 42.1 percent, ranks fourth on the team in scoring and is coming off a 16-point effort that marked the first time this year that he alone led Maryland in scoring. McCray has now reached double figures in back-to-back games for the first time since Jan. 3.
"He's had a tough year shooting the ball, no doubt about it," Williams said of McCray. "I thought in October he was going to have a great year. We need to shoot the ball well down the stretch."
Maryland's defense, which has been its strong suit throughout the season - that first-half surrender of 55 points in Chapel Hill was a glaring exception - will be hard-pressed to stifle Georgia Tech.
Led by junior guard B.J. Elder (16.2 points per game), senior guard Marvin Lewis (11.9) and freshman point guard Jarrett Jack (11.9), the Yellow Jackets can run off points in a hurry, especially when their pressure defense is cooking and 7-foot-1 junior center Luke Schenscher, explosive junior forward Isma'il Muhammad (61.9 percent shooting) and junior backup point guard Will Bynum are getting pieces of the action.
Bynum, the transfer from Arizona who is generously listed at 6 feet, lit up the Terps for 25 points in Tech's 81-71 victory in Atlanta last month, when Maryland fell apart over the game's final 10 minutes after taking a slim lead. Schenscher controlled Smith and hurt Maryland with 15 points and 11 rebounds.
"We've always played very competitive and high-intensity games against them. I don't expect this one to be any different," Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt said. "The fact that we're both coming off losses probably makes both teams just a little more irritable going into the game."