COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK - For all the hand-wringing about the state of Maryland basketball and the fate of its coach, you have to give this to Gary Williams: He has coached this team right into its preferred position.
No, the Terps didn't plan it this way. Didn't draw it up like this on the blackboard. And certainly Williams never encouraged his team to lose last night's heartbreaker.
But with their postseason hopes weighing in the balance, the Terps are right where they like to be. Their backs are against the wall. The doubters are lining up. And the critics are licking their chops.
It's where Maryland often plays its best basketball. The only difference this time: With last night's 65-63 loss to Wake Forest, the Terps have left themselves no room for error. If they want to play in the NCAA tournament, they have to win.
"We know we're not going to quit," Dave Neal said. "We've come this far to show people around here that we can play with anybody in the country. We're not going to give up now."
Terps fans have been so eager this season for some sort of verdict. No, Williams doesn't keep pace with other coaches on the recruiting trail. But when it comes to coaching, to preparing his team, to squeezing every last ounce of effort from his players, look to Saturday's season finale at Virginia for final judgment on Williams' effectiveness as a basketball coach.
In the past, it's the exact kind of situation Williams has thrived in. Can he still? Can his team still?
"Come to the game Saturday," Williams said last night. "You'll see."
Crushed by last night's defeat, the Terps can hear the music. The bass is faint. The sound is muffled. But they can still hear it. To earn their way through the doors and into the Dance, however, they have to win Saturday - which would even their Atlantic Coast Conference record at 8-8 - and they'll likely have to win two games in the ACC tournament.
We've seen them respond in such situations before. They were drubbed by Duke and lost at home against Boston College. Maryland answered with an emotional home win over Miami.
And after losing convincingly at Clemson, they returned home to upset third-ranked North Carolina four nights later.
And after losing to Duke at Comcast Center, they hit the road to win at North Carolina State.
With their postseason hopes on the line Saturday, they have no choice but to rebound once more.
Last night, they blew an 11-point lead, struggled to find rebounds and ran out of energy in the end. They lost a game they easily could've won. Their next time on the court, there can't be any excuses. It's a familiar feeling. Perhaps even a welcome feeling.
"We're used to it by now," guard Eric Hayes said. "It's been a long season, a lot of criticism about the team. We're just used to having our backs against the wall. It's something we've been playing well with."
A year ago, the Terps similarly closed the season at Virginia with their NCAA tournament hopes on the line. They lost that one - not that it matters much to Williams. He didn't even want to entertain any comparisons last night. For him, this team is so different, its makeup and chemistry inspiring so much more confidence.
"The way we work, the way we handle things, the way we approach things, the way we've handled adversity this year," he said, "these guys have had my back all year. They've been tremendous."
Though their record to this point is similar to last year's, this season's Terps have closed against tougher opponents and despite last night's nail-biter, they're faring better down the stretch.
The big question could be: Just how many teams will the ACC send to the tournament? Most analysts are expecting seven or eight, which would bode well for the Terps.
A year ago, the ACC had only four tournament teams. Since the conference expanded after the 2003-04 season, it has sent more than five once and never more than seven.
Right now, the conference should have six locked up with three teams teetering on the bubble. While Maryland and Virginia Tech need a win apiece to finish with .500 conference records, Miami must won both of its remaining games.
With many blemishes on its resume, Maryland - even if it gets past Virginia - will need to win one, probably two, in the ACC tournament to garner serious consideration for an at-large bid.
The Terps have successfully played their way into the conversation. But there's much more that needs to be done to play their way into the NCAA tournament.