GREENSBORO, N.C. — Greensboro, N.C.-- --Maryland shouldn't even be in the conversation about the NCAA tournament today, hours before the 65-team field is announced.
The only reason the Terps are in the conversation is that the rest of the country hasn't been loud enough to drown them out.
Can one compare bubble teams year-to-year? This year's bunch, including Maryland, had better hope not, because it's hard to remember more teams coughing up their chances more often and more shamefully.
March madness? Sure - fans of a dozen schools or more ought to be furious about how their teams are falling on their faces. With this year's borderline cases, there are plenty of Michigans and very few Syracuses.
Yes, Maryland looked bad for all but a week from the end of January until now. Suggestions during that week that the Terps had earned consideration for an at-large bid were hooted down in disgust (at least the suggestions made in this space). They're terrible, the argument went, and they don't deserve to go.
Unfortunately this season, those are two separate topics.
Terrible as they have been - and that adjective fits better than ever after that disgrace against Boston College on Friday - can the Terps say they're that much more terrible than Florida State, which was ahead of them on the bid line heading into Greensboro? Or North Carolina State, which was one of the four ACC mortal locks going in?
Gary Williams made the point a week ago - among many he made after the victory at Virginia to keep hope alive - that some teams needed only to play a strong game in Greensboro, and avoid playing a notably bad one, even if they don't win. His own team proved him right, in losing. So did the Seminoles and Wolfpack. The North Carolina papers all but called for coach Herb Sendek's job, that's how impressive the showing was by the fourth-seeded, 21-win, 10-ACC-win 'Pack.
All over the place, the number of teams that failed to help themselves was shocking. Maryland was just in the pack. It's getting so bad, it's going to be the dominant memory we'll take from this season - not the ones who rose to the occasion, but the ones who shrank from it.
Don't confuse this with an endorsement of this Terps team getting that invitation. But let's not pretend that the bar is so high that it's way out of Maryland's reach.
In fact, that makes the finish more of a letdown. The Terps didn't need to do much, and they still couldn't do it. Chances are that their spot will be taken by a team that simply screwed up less than they did.
Indiana, for example, reached the Big Ten tourney semis yesterday, lost a heartbreaker to Ohio State and probably is in - and when that name goes up on the bracket today, everyone will forget that both the Hoosiers and Buckeyes shot around 30 percent for the game. Again, who played less badly.
Much of this watering-down of the game will be overlooked by everyone once it's time to fill in the brackets. The inherent drama, passion, sectional loyalty and even quality of play across the board, all jumbled together over one month, is intoxicating.
It just shouldn't be mistaken for widespread excellence. Again, it's not so much that those pesky, noisy mid-majors are closing in on the majors; it's that the majors are falling back toward them, at least for the moment.
The national title game three weeks from now in Indianapolis won't come close to the combined star power Illinois and North Carolina generated a year ago. Doesn't matter what combination of Duke, UConn, Villanova, Memphis, North Carolina or anyone else gets there. The ACC is down, despite its denials. The whole country is down.
It's so far down, a disappointing team like Maryland doesn't have to reach up that far to get a whiff of the national championship tournament.
Beat someone good, that was the challenge Maryland faced this season, particularly down the stretch. The argument in their favor centers on the tough schedule, the Dukes and Carolinas and that opening date with Gonzaga in Maui, and by now it's common knowledge how weak that claim is, because they didn't beat many teams on that tough schedule.
By that rationale, Coppin State deserves a bid more than anyone in the country.
The Eagles won't wait around today for their name to be called, though. The Terps players and coaches will gather at Comcast Center, as they do annually. It's almost certain that their feelings will be hurt for the second straight year. They'll be angry and feel shafted.
In a diluted, underachieving way, you can't blame them.
Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog
Points after -- David Steele
Few people in the world look worse lying than athletes denying accusations of performance-enhancing drugs. The problem is, telling the truth looks worse - and, as we've seen, saying nothing looks worse than both. Thus, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and the rest are left to choose between telling a whopper of a tale and looking like fools, or telling the truth and removing all doubt.
With all due respect to the authors of the new Bonds book (two former colleagues at the San Francisco Chronicle), it's interesting that their publication is being instantly accepted at face value as proof of the extent of the problem - as opposed to the story told by a former Most Valuable Player who actually used, and gave eyewitness reports of who else did. Both should be, and should have been, believed from the beginning. But neither Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams ever had a fly ball bounce off his head in a big league game.