- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2004

It’s crunch time in College Park.

The Maryland Terrapins began practicing four months ago and have played 21 games, but whether this season ultimately will bring success — meaning an NCAA tournament bid — will be determined by the final six regular-season games and possibly the ACC tournament.

And although each game will be important, tonight’s contest against 18th-ranked Georgia Tech could be the most significant and revealing. It should indicate whether the Terps (13-8, 4-6 ACC) will put enough together to reach the NCAAs or will fall into a Madness-free March for the first time in 11 seasons.

“You just have to take care of business when you get a chance,” coach Gary Williams said. “This year it is when you are playing at home.”

The Terps play four of their final six games at home and likely need four more victories to clinch an NCAA appearance. Maryland will be an underdog Sunday when it visits league-leading, third-ranked Duke and again March3 when it invades second-place, 13th-ranked N.C. State. The Terps will be sizable favorites in home games with eighth-place Virginia and ninth-place Clemson.

If those games go as expected and Maryland splits them, that leaves tonight’s game with the Yellow Jackets (18-6, 5-5) and the Feb.28 visit from 15th-ranked Wake Forest as deciding factors in the Terps’ NCAA quest. A sweep of the two would make Maryland a virtual lock for the NCAAs.

Three more wins could mean the Terps’ fate would depend on their showing in the ACC tournament and on the mercy of the NCAA selection committee. Losing four of their final six likely would put Maryland in the NIT, barring an unexpected ACC tournament title.

The erratic Terps currently are seventh in the ACC. Maryland is one game behind third-place Georgia Tech and Wake Forest and can move up to at least a tie for fourth with a victory tonight.

“It does matter,” Williams said of the standings. “Obviously, you’d like to finish as high as you could because it just makes you look better even though you might only be a game ahead of somebody that’s three or four places away from you.”

Williams feels that seven ACC wins could be enough to make the NCAA tournament based on the conference being rated the nation’s best with five teams in the Top 25. The coach feels eight league victories would be a lock.

To get there, the Terps will have to shake off perhaps their most uneven performance in a roller-coaster season. Maryland seemed disinterested in the first half at No.16 North Carolina on Sunday before using pressure defense to help slice a 22-point deficit to three late in the second half before losing.

“The good thing about that comeback maybe is that players are upset that they played so poorly in the first half,” Williams said. “We did play well in the second half, but were so far back we couldn’t catch them. … That has been a trademark of our team, in that we are not as consistent executing both offensively and defensively as we would like to be.”

Georgia Tech won its first 12 games this season and was ranked as high as No.3 nationally. Although the Yellow Jackets have all but clinched a NCAA bid, they also have lost three of their past five, including an upset at lowly Virginia last Saturday. Tech defeated Maryland 81-71 in the first meeting Jan.17 in Atlanta, when Will Bynum led Tech with 25 points and the Terps shot 36.2 percent.

“With both teams coming off a loss, it makes both teams a little grouchier, a little more irritable and should make the game a little more hard-fought,” Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt said.

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