COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK -- Despite numerous discussions outside of Comcast Center that have already pigeonholed Maryland into its third straight National Invitation Tournament, junior forward James Gist said he hasn't heard one whisper within the program about the NIT.
There is no fear of it, he said, and the team is not playing to avoid it - rather, the Terps are still eyeing the NCAA tournament.
"I know going into every game it's like, 'We can get this win,' " Gist said. "Our focus is NCAA. We know we can get it this year. Our desire to win is so much different than last year. Last year was more so, 'We're not trying to go to the NIT.'
"The first year was, 'Man, we're in the NIT.' Now, it's like we have a chance to get to the NCAA, so let's get all these games we can win and let's get there in a good position and try to get a good seed."
There are seven games left, beginning at 5 tonight against Duke, and Maryland (17-7, 3-6 Atlantic Coast Conference) needs to win five of them to finish .500 in the league - a mark that historically has been good enough to qualify for the NCAA tournament.
While the Terps' fate has yet to be sealed, the margin for error continues to shrink. There is a core group of donors who attend most every game, home and away, who remain steadfast in their loyalty to coach Gary Williams and the program. The incoming recruits also seem to be unfazed by the fact that Maryland has lost four of its past six games.
A growing number of fans, though, have expressed concern about the program's direction.
"I've been frustrated for years," said Dennis Peddy, a 1968 Maryland graduate and Cockeysville native who lives in Polson, Mont. "This is the first year where I've gotten to the point where it doesn't ruin my whole day. ... Unless they totally turn this around, I can't imagine how they would make the NCAAs. I really am divorcing myself from the program."
Some, like Jack Heise, have been married to it forever.
"I've been through thick and thin with Maryland," said Heise, a 1982 graduate and longtime booster who flies back from road games with the team. "I don't worry about anything. I just love Maryland football, basketball, whatever they play. I know how good a coach Gary is. I know that our program is in good hands.
"I don't worry about those things because they're nice young men, they work hard, and if they play hard the way they're taught and run the plays the way they're taught, we'll be all right. Period."
Bob Bodell, who was a senior guard on the 1973 team that advanced to the NCAA Elite Eight under Lefty Driesell, said he doesn't see any choice other than to "stick with it."
"I'm all for the current program and the current people there," said Bodell, who lives in Montgomery County and has spent the past 30-plus years working for Chevy Chase Bank. "They've got a good class coming in. Let's face it - Gary's a great coach. I guarantee you that each one of the coaches and each one of the players, when they don't play well, are trying to figure it out. It's not like they don't care. I think you just have to stick with it. I don't see any other way to go. It's a great program.
"I think everybody wants us to turn it around, but how do you make that happen?" he said. "Sometimes it's staying with it."
Some fans, though, just aren't used to it.
Michael Harer, a 2002 Maryland graduate from Williamsport, Pa., and his friend Jarad Schofer, a Washington resident who earned his Ph.D. from Maryland in 2005, traveled to Winston-Salem, N.C., for their annual road game.
Their enthusiasm at Wake Forest was tempered by the Terps' current path.
"I just kind of feel it's embarrassing that we're even having a conversation about the possibility of three straight years in the NIT," Harer said. " ... Jarad and I went down to the Final Four. We were there for the national championship. We were talking about the good recruiting class that was coming in, and how we're going to build off of that. ... I never would have thought that three years later I'd be talking about the possibility of another NIT."
"If they don't make it this year, it might be a sign of bad things to come," he said. "I don't think Gary is on the hot seat just yet, but I am worried because I'm used to 11 years of making it. We had gone to the top. We don't want to be one of those teams that is just good every four years. We want to be a top program every year."
Longtime CBS-TV college basketball analyst Billy Packer said that with Williams as coach, Maryland is a program that should expect to consistently be among the top 30 in the nation "and sometimes do better than that," but its most glaring shortcoming has been the lack of a go-to player.
"I think that's what they're lacking more than anything else," said Packer, who saw the Terps lose at Florida State. "When they get in games where things are getting away from them, they just don't have that person that night in and night out they can lean on to get the job done."
While the team's current record is not up to fans' expectations, Williams pointed out that the players have met his demand of being "good citizens," something he stressed at the beginning of the season after a series of off-the-court problems and legal issues added to the frustration of a second NIT appearance.
"They've really done a good job," Williams said of his players' behavior off the court. "We had a very good academic semester the first semester, and we continue to do that. We have four seniors who are on schedule to graduate, so there are a lot of things off the court I'm very proud of with these guys.
"They've made a commitment to try to be a good team," he said. "It's been up and down a little bit, but our effort has been pretty good over the course of the year since October. We want to continue to keep working. I think that's the key this time of year, no matter what your record is. Nobody has ensured themselves of anything. No one. You just keep working and hope you can get your share of wins."
Sticking with UM
Dino Gregory, a Mount St. Joseph standout who signed a letter of intent to join the program next season, remained committed to the program.
"I think they're going to make the NCAA tournament," Gregory said. "I'm not really worried about that. Gary Williams is a great coach. He knows what to do from here. I've been playing attention real close, but I'm not worried. ... I work on my game every day to help them get closer to the tournament."
So do the current players, Gist said.
"Everybody wants to win on the team this year," he said. "I'm not saying in the past two years nobody wanted to win, but nobody was willing to do everything it took to win. This year we have that attitude as a team. Even though there have been some games we haven't pulled it out, it's not that we lost our desire to win. This year I can see it in everybody that we really want it."
An article in yesterday's Sports section about the University of Maryland basketball team incorrectly listed booster Jack Heise's age as his graduating year. Heise is 82.THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR