Feb. 21, 8 p.m.: These Maryland players have endured a home loss to Morgan State and a 41-point loss at Duke. They heard they would finish near the bottom of the ACC and read nearly 10,000 words in this newspaper criticizing their perceived lack of talent.
But in seven minutes of game action Saturday, including a frenetic overtime session against North Carolina, the Terrapins abruptly changed the tenor and trajectory of a season many felt would be all but lost by late February. After rallying from nine down with 1:54 remaining in regulation to beat the Tar Heels, an at-large NCAA tournament berth that long seemed improbable is now within reach.
“If they are not talking about us now for the NCAA tournament, then I’m not sure what it’s going to take,” Maryland senior Dave Neal said. “We wanted to prove we could play with just about anybody.”
It does not matter whether Maryland (17-9, 6-6 ACC) would make the 65-team field if the bids were handed out today. The more important point is that the Terrapins cleared their toughest hurdle en route to an at-large bid.
By securing their fourth victory of the season over a top 50 team, Maryland would have a realistic chance at a berth with road wins over North Carolina State and Virginia and one victory in the ACC tournament. Beating Duke or Wake Forest, two other upcoming opponents, would be even more of a boost.
The number of strong mid-major teams in contention for at-large berths is smaller than usual. And many of the high-major teams in contention for the final at-large bids have particularly mediocre resumes.
That means, even with only one true road victory and a Ratings Percentage Index at 63 before Saturday’s game, there is room for Maryland on the so-called tournament bubble. With two weeks remaining in the regular season, the Terrapins have a better chance than Georgetown – the team that whipped Maryland by 27 points on Nov. 30 --- to reach the NCAAs, and few would have envisioned that scenario six weeks ago.
“I do think people counted us out,” Neal said. “I was looking and a lot of people had Miami in at 4-7 and we were out. It kind of just blew my mind that they had them above us. Now people have to talk about us.”
Aside from amassing Top 50 victories and a respectable RPI, Maryland needed to pass the eye test. Selection committee members look to select teams that other opponents don’t want to play, teams that are capable of advancing in the NCAAs against top-tier competition.
After losing to Duke by 41 points, Clemson by 29 and North Carolina by 17 in the last month alone, Maryland did not look like a team that could hang with the nation’s elite. That changed Saturday, when the Terrapins authored a comeback that might have been even more improbable than Kansas’s late-game rally in last season’s national title game.
The remaining schedule is daunting. The Terrapins could lose any game. They could also win any game. They match up far better against their next opponent, Duke, than they did against North Carolina, which possessed “an NBA front line,” Gary Williams said.
“If we beat Duke” on Wednesday, Neal said, “that makes a huge statement.”
Almost as big as the one Maryland made Saturday.
February 21, 2009; 8:00 PM ET
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