No racket about the bracket

The Baltimore Sun

COLLEGE PARK -Gary Williams says he has neither the time nor the inclination to assess how his Maryland Terrapins might rank against the scores of would-be participants in the NCAA tournament field. The coach says he's just focused on winning games.

But while Williams might not want to play bracket punditry, others - who don't have to worry about coaching a men's basketball team - are happy to speculate about Maryland's chances of joining the tournament field.

What these experts say is that Maryland (17-10, 6-7 Atlantic Coast Conference), which plays at North Carolina State tonight, has left itself precious little margin for error.

The Terps need to win at least two of their three remaining games - Wake Forest and Virginia remain on the schedule after tonight - to arrive at the ACC tournament with an 8-8 conference record that would at least earn them consideration for an NCAA bid.

At 8-8, Maryland could enter the ACC tournament competing with two other schools in the middle of the league's standings - Virginia Tech and Miami - for a slot.

"I think one of those three makes it, and you certainly can't rule out two of those three," Jerry Palm, owner of the Web site, said of the Terps, Hokies and Hurricanes.

"The thing about Maryland is that despite the [November] win over Michigan State, they're still pretty much of a home-court team. I think they've got to beat someone on the road," Palm said.

The Terrapins are 1-5 on the road in ACC games, the only victory coming by one point at Georgia Tech. In January, Maryland lost a 17-point lead at Miami and was beaten in overtime at Florida State. The Michigan State win was at a neutral site in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Six ACC schools - North Carolina, Duke, Clemson, Wake Forest, Florida State and Boston College - have 20 wins and are above .500 in league games. The chances of Maryland, Virginia Tech and Miami hinge partly on whether the tournament selection committee deems the ACC potent enough to justify eight bids.

The ACC got four bids last season and seven - including Maryland, which advanced to the second round - in 2007.

ESPN's Joe Lunardi was projecting yesterday that eight ACC teams would qualify this season - but not Maryland. Lunardi had Virginia Tech and Miami in the tournament. He listed the Terps as "on the bubble" without qualifying.

The ACC is expected to benefit because of a scarcity of mid-major teams strong enough to win at-large bids if they don't capture their conference tournaments.

Fewer competitive mid-majors means more entries for the so-called "power conferences."

"Usually about this time I'll have 10 to 12 nonmajors on the fence sitters' list," Palm said. "This year, the Missouri Valley [Conference] is down, the Colonial [Athletic Association] is down. This benefits the Marylands of the world, the Michigans, the Kentuckys, the South Carolinas.

"Now they have hope because, outside of the Mountain West and the Atlantic 10, there's not much going on outside the major conferences," he said.

Williams said a few weeks ago that he doesn't use his team's NCAA prospects as motivation.

"No, I never have," he said. "You hear about it enough anyway. If you're a good team, you don't need outside stimulus."

Whether he talks about it or not, he knows it's often on players' minds.

"It's the ultimate goal, you know," junior forward Landon Milbourne said yesterday. "I mean, that's why we come here - to get to the NCAA tournament. And then when you get there, you try to make a run and see what can happen."

But Milbourne, who was a freshman when the fourth-seeded Terps beat Davidson and lost to Butler in the 2007 tournament, said there is a danger in focusing on too much too soon.

"You start thinking about what's going to happen and try to predict things, it might just mess up your chances. I just try to stay focused and block out all that stuff," he said.

Notes: : Starting guard Sean Mosley was limited in practice after stepping on another player's foot in Wednesday's game against Duke. But Williams said the freshman is expected to resume full workouts and play against the Wolfpack.

terps tonight

What to watch for

Maryland can't afford to sag, even after expending large amounts of energy against North Carolina and Duke - perhaps the biggest games of the season to that point. The Terps are 1-5 on the road in the Atlantic Coast Conference this season.

Key matchups

Brandon Costner, a 6-foot-9 forward, vs. the Maryland defense. Costner is averaging 14.1 points. Teammate Ben McCauley is eighth in the ACC in rebounding.

What it means

Maryland needs to win at least two out of its remaining three games to be in serious contention for an NCAA tournament bid heading into the ACC tournament.

Jeff Barker

MARYLAND (17-10, 6-7) @ N.C. STATE (15-11, 5-8) Tonight, 7:30 TV: Comcast SportsNet

Radio: 1300 AM, 105.7 FM

Line: N.C. State by 5 1/2

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