COLLEGE PARK - The Maryland men's basketball team probably isn't as good as that group that beat the fifth-ranked team in the nation last week. And it probably isn't as bad as that team that lost in such embarrassing fashion just three days later.
So what are we to make of this team?
"It's still to be determined," Terps coach Gary Williams said.
The big question tonight isn't really a matter of winning or losing. You generally don't want to place too much emphasis on a game this early in the season, but how the Terps perform - more precisely, how they respond to their terrible performance Sunday - should be telling.
No doubt, Williams has been weighing the possibilities ever since the gym lights went off after the 75-48 debacle of a loss to Georgetown.
"You always worry after a loss," he said yesterday. "It's not Georgetown, it's just a loss. You worry how you're going to play the next game."
As a coach, especially with a team that has formed no identity, you have to be careful. It's not always easy. Whether anyone in College Park wants to accept this or not, the Terps are playing a crossroads season. Because confidence is such a fickle concept around Comcast, Williams knows he has to handle this group with kid gloves. It's a juggling act of admonition, criticism, suggestion and motivation. Here's how the coach explains the post-game thought process:
"You go through three or four hours where you just want to kill everybody. Then you calm down a little bit and you realize that certain guys did play well, even though the score was as ridiculous as the score was. At the same time, you need those same guys who didn't play well to play well in the next game."
After Sunday's game, the Terps returned to College Park about midnight. Williams was at Comcast at 7:30 the next morning. By the time his team arrived for practice, everyone was eager to move on to the Wolverines and their 1-3-1 zone, but Williams needed to revisit the Georgetown game first.
The Terps played three games in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.: the big win over Michigan State, a 21-point loss to a good Gonzaga team and then the blowout by the Hoyas. The only one they watched tape of was the Georgetown game.
"It was something that I really haven't seen in any games I've played," junior guard Eric Hayes said. "It was something you don't want to happen again."
Sophomore Adrian Bowie said coaches paused the video and pointed out each mistake.
"It felt like we were in there for three or four hours," Bowie said. "It was horrible."
Actually, Williams said he took the players through only the first seven or eight minutes of the game. It might have felt like an eternity, but the lesson was only about a half-hour long. "But a valuable half-hour," Williams said.
"I wanted them to see how we started the game. Because the energy level wasn't there to play a good team," Williams said. "I wanted them to see that."
Energy level is going to be important with this team, and that's why tonight there's a microscope focused on how the Terps rebound from Sunday.
The truth is, this season's team can't expect to out-talent many foes or to bully them. Maryland won't beat teams by virtue of height, skill or experience.
Which is why when they win, they'll win ugly. And when they lose, they could lose big. The difference between the two could very well be the effort, preparation and discipline that goes into each game.
You want to be careful comparing statistics this early in the season because the quality of opponents varies so much and coaches are still juggling lineups. Everybody has played only a handful of teams thus far (and none has faced a stretch like the Terps' last week), so take this for what it's worth: Maryland is the only Atlantic Coast Conference team that doesn't hold a rebounding edge over its opponents. While other teams are out-rebounding foes by 10 a game, the Terps have been out-rebounded by an average of 3.5.
In six games, in fact, only twice has a Maryland player pulled down more than six rebounds. Greivis Vasquez had eight against Youngstown State and nine against Vermont. Against Georgetown, no Terp had more than four and no starter more than three.
Unless their shooting improves noticeably from Sunday's 32 percent clip, the Terps' lone edge could be their effort. If they don't have that, they won't have much.
This next stretch of games should give Maryland's unpolished players some confidence heading into their conference schedule. But first they'll need to define themselves.
They can't be a team that got schooled by Georgetown. They must be one that learned something from Georgetown.
MICHIGAN (5-1) @ TERPS (4-2)
ACC/Big Ten Challenge
Tonight, 7:30 p.m.
Radio: 1300 AM, 105.7 FM
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