COLLEGE PARK - The great nights early on seemed to hint at such promise.
On Dec. 2, there was Terps senior center Jamar Smith, lighting up Wisconsin with 25 points and 12 rebounds and pushing Maryland to an overtime victory. Six weeks later, Smith dominated North Carolina center Sean May in the second half of a 90-84 win that made Maryland look like an Atlantic Coast Conference title contender.
Then there was the bite sophomore forward Nik Caner-Medley took out of the Florida Gators, who were ranked No. 1 on Dec. 10 and playing host to the Terps in Gainesville. Caner-Medley was unstoppable, scoring six of his 22 points in overtime, and grabbing a game-high 13 rebounds, as Maryland won in overtime. Or how about the 21-point, eight-rebound gem he fashioned in a losing effort against Duke on Jan. 21?
Fast-forward to late February, and witness a Maryland team fighting for its NCAA tournament life. It's a team that, among other things, badly needs Smith and Caner-Medley to resurrect their games as the Terps stagger toward the finish line with a 4-7 record in their past 11 games.
To win today against surging, third-place Wake Forest, a team marked by an outstanding backcourt rotation and the proven ability to win on the road, the Terps probably need a little bit of everything to go right. Make shots. Make free throws. Out-work the No. 11 Demon Deacons (18-6, 8-5) on the glass. Don't let guards Chris Paul and Justin Gray light them up outside, or allow center Eric Williams to control things inside.
And if Smith and Caner-Medley don't end their recent struggles, Maryland (14-10, 5-8) likely will be tied for seventh place with Virginia and be faced with a must-win scenario in its final two regular-season games - at 14th-ranked N.C. State on Wednesday and at home against Virginia four nights later. Without at least a 7-9 ACC finish, the Terps would appear to be headed for the National Invitation Tournament.
"The great teams we've had have always gotten better, all the way through the NCAA tournament. There was never a peak. I think that's true with players," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "What you did in November and December is probably not good enough for late February and March. All of the games are on television. Teams scout you."
Opponents have made it difficult on Smith and Caner-Medley, each of whom is mired in a shooting slump and having problems on defense.
Caner-Medley, 6 feet 8 and a two-time state scoring champion at Deering High School in Portland, Maine, is trying to solidify the small forward spot in a league full of excellent athletes at that position.
February started badly for him, when N.C. State's Julius Hodge lit him up for most of his 28 points in an 81-69 loss at Comcast Center. It continued two weeks later when North Carolina's Rashad McCants scored 25 in a 97-86 Carolina victory.
His offense has taken a hit, as well. In his past three games, Caner-Medley has averaged 6.3 points, shot 29.6 percent and made one of nine three-point attempts. He has forced shots and lost the ball with glaring frequency. In the Terps' 70-49 victory over Clemson on Tuesday, Caner-Medley had his first scoreless game of the season and committed a career-high seven turnovers.
"I think I've played well and done some good things this year. At the same time, there's some things I can improve on," said Caner-Medley, who is averaging 12.9 points and 4.9 rebounds overall. "As the season has gone on, teams started to respect my game and a lot of their defenses went into stopping me.
"I'm focusing on getting my teammates involved early in the game [as a passer]. Defense has been tough. Most people my size play the four [power forward] or five [center]. Guarding quick, smaller guys is something I'm getting used to."
Smith, 6-9, a senior blessed with quickness and fine leaping ability, produced eight double doubles against nonconference opponents. He has one double double in 13 ACC games and has fallen out of the top 25 in scoring in conference play.
His problems started early on the free-throw line, and have not improved. His interior passing has never been a strength, and his shooting touch around the basket has faded badly in recent efforts. In his past three games, Smith has averaged 5.7 points on 24.1 percent shooting and has made three of 11 foul shots.
For the season, Smith has averaged a solid 12.6 points and 9.3 rebounds, but has wasted many offensive rebounds by shooting 42.3 percent from the field and wasted his ability to draw fouls by shooting just 42.1 percent at the free-throw line.
"The real adjustment you make [in college] is not to let [a lack of] points affect the way you play the rest of the game," Williams said. "When Nik doesn't score, he feels like there's something wrong. I think teams are preparing for him more this year.
"Jamar has to keep going. He has to really show how good he can be this time of the year. Everybody forgets what happened in December. It's what's going on right now [that matters]."
Maryland big men Jamar Smith and Nik Caner-Medley have fallen off in their production in Atlantic Coast Conference games, especially down the stretch:
Jamar Smith Pts. Reb.
11 non-league games 14.9 10.9
13 ACC games 10.7 7.9
Past three games 5.7 7.3
Nik Caner-Medley Pts. Reb.
11 non-league games 14.6 6.0
13 ACC games 11.5 4.0
Past three games 6.3 3.7
Matchup: No. 11 Wake Forest (18-6, 8-5 ACC) vs. Maryland (14-10, 5-8)
Site: Comcast Center, College Park
Time: 1 p.m.
TV/Radio: Chs. 2, 7/WBAL (1090 AM)