Dance steps

The Baltimore Sun

A little more than a month ago, it didn't look as if Maryland's invitation to the Big Dance would be coming in the mail. A start that included two losses in the Atlantic Coast Conference and nonconference defeats to American and Ohio had NIT written all over it - at best.

But since losing to Virginia Tech by a point in mid-January, Gary Williams' guys have reeled off seven wins in their past nine games, including that shocker at North Carolina. And the only two losses have been to Duke.

With the Terrapins playing a hot hand right now, Joe Lunardi, ESPN's bracketologist, said Maryland (17-9, 7-4 ACC) should be fine for the NCAA tournament but it can't let down. The Terps' remaining schedule features Virginia Tech tonight at home; away games against Miami and Wake Forest; a home game against Clemson, and the regular-season finale at Virginia.

Going 3-2 the rest of the way should pretty much do it, but the relatively manageable schedule is a double-edged sword.

"You would expect Maryland to go 4-1[or] 3-2, but some of these are games that don't help you as much when you win them as they hurt you if you lose them," Lunardi said. "You have Virginia, which is 2-9 [in the ACC] and Miami and Wake, two teams that think they should be in the conversation [as far as going to the tournament is concerned]."

The implication is that teams such as Miami and Wake Forest will be playing with a heightened sense of urgency.

OK, so 11-5 in the ACC makes Maryland a lock. But what about 10-6 if the Terps lose in the first round of the conference tournament?

"I can't recall the last time an ACC team finished 10-6 and didn't make it," Lunardi said. Still, one-and-done in the conference tournament would not make for a comfortable Selection Sunday.

"The thing is, if you lose in the first round of the ACC tournament, who is that loss to?" Lunardi said.

"You want to avoid giving the [selection] committee any reason to keep you out," he added. "They always have too many pegs and not enough holes."

Local fans may have more than just the Terrapins to root for come March.

UMBC leads the America East, and Morgan State (Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) and Loyola (Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) are tied for the top spot in their conferences. Winning the conference tournament is a must for any of these teams to make the field of 65, but if they don't, there's a silver lining.

"In these cases what we're seeing is that even if you don't win the tournament," Lunardi said, "if you finish first [in the regular season], you'll probably wind up in the NIT, and that's a good thing."

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

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