Eyes on court, not bubble


COLLEGE PARK -- Despite being inundated with early March Madness hype and in a precarious position himself, Maryland junior forward Ekene Ibekwe apparently hasn't been swept away by the February frenzy of who's in and who's out of this year's NCAA tournament.

"I don't know nothin' about RPI," Ibekwe said yesterday, seeming genuinely clueless about the Rating Percentage Index, one of the major factors considered by the NCAA tournament selection committee when choosing the field of 65.

Maryland coach Gary Williams smiled when told of Ibekwe's response, and said, "My man."

Williams said he is trying to keep his players on task - tonight's 9 o'clock game at Florida State (16-7, 6-6 Atlantic Coast Conference) - but has never seen NCAA tournament predictions reach the fervor they have this season. The Terps (16-9, 6-6) are one of many teams jockeying for position as the regular season comes to a close, but Williams said the No. 1 factor is winning - not catchphrases like "bracket busters," and "on the bubble," which is exactly where his team is sitting.

"Gotten worse? Are you kidding me?" Williams said of the conjecture. "It's the worst I've ever seen it. And it will continue to do so as there's new ways to get stuff out there. It's everybody's 15 minutes ... 'Hey, I got this bracket here.' ... Nobody remembers it when the tournament starts.

"I think Digger Phelps listed 100 teams making the NCAA tournament so far," Williams quipped. "He's doing a good job. I guess it expanded. The ACC is getting seven, eight, maybe nine [teams in] if we have a good tournament. It's kind of funny."

Williams said he'd rather "listen to music than listen to that stuff," but is well aware the hype is hard for his players to hide from - especially with Maryland's RPI of 45, which is pretty much a 50-50 shot at making the tournament. The Terps finished last season in the National Invitation Tournament, which they're trying desperately to avoid in March.

Ibekwe said he and his teammates are aware of what the experts are saying - that Maryland's chances of returning to the NCAA tournament are slim to none - but can draw from the experience of last year.

"It was tough," he said. "We were on the bubble. That's somewhere you don't necessarily want to be.

"I don't want to say do or die, but it's kind of that situation," he said. "We've been through it before. We just have to keep running with these wins and stay positive with each other. We just want to be in a good position where we don't have to [wonder] if we're going to make it or not."

Williams said a .500 record in the ACC and a strong performance in the conference tournament should suffice for a spot in the NCAA tournament. For Maryland to do that, road wins down the stretch are critical. Tonight's trip is one of three still left on the schedule, and Florida State is in a similar position tonight with a home-court advantage. The Seminoles have won their past four games in the Donald L. Tucker Center and are in a tie with Maryland and Virginia for fifth place in the ACC.

Junior forward Al Thornton leads Florida State with 16.1 points a game and has caught the attention of NBA scouts, but Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton also found himself answering questions this week about six teams from the Missouri Valley Conference that could bump ACC teams out of the NCAA tournament.

"Most of the people who are talking and making those accusations never built programs, never coached, never used strategy," he said. "They are entertainers. They're speaking from their heart and the information they have. But at this particular time, none of that matters because we still have games to play.

"I'm not going to allow myself to get caught up in all these things because if you're winning those games, it takes care of itself."

Williams joked about getting a head start on his team's placement in next year's NCAA tournament.

"It's just like recruiting now," he said. "If you don't get started two years in advance, you're not going to make it."


Maryland@Florida State Tonight, 9, Ch. 54, 1300 AM, 105.7 FM. Line: Florida State by 4

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