Early title could benefit Terps

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The Coaches vs. Cancer Classic trophy earned Friday is stowed away in Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams’ office, the T-shirts players picked up for their title effort already admired.

However, the value of winning a championship of any kind is something the Terrapins could draw on for some time.

“There’s not many tournaments this time of year where it’s as big a thing to win,” freshman point guard Eric Hayes said. “That and Maui are probably the two biggest tournaments, so it’s definitely a big high for us, and winning that tournament gives us a little recognition nationally.”

Of course, there’s still nearly four months of regular-season play for the Terps (5-0) and plenty of opportunities to draw on the experience of fending off Michigan State at Madison Square Garden.

The first will come at Comcast Center tonight, when the Terps play host to Winthrop (3-1), a small-conference visitor capable of creating major headaches. The Eagles have made six NCAA appearances out of the Big South in the last eight years and already have thrown a scare into North Carolina and won at Mississippi State.

“This is a new situation for us coming off a win and having to play a very good team in your next game,” Williams said. “I think we’re mature enough to figure out this is a good basketball team. I don’t try to build up a team that isn’t good. If I say a team is good, I think the players know I mean it.”

The Terps have plenty to work on against Winthrop after struggling offensively for much of Friday’s title game against Michigan State. The Spartans outrebounded Maryland, a problem that could prove especially costly later in the season.

Yet there were encouraging signs even as the Terps scuffled. Greivis Vasquez and D.J. Strawberry capably split time at point guard after Hayes encountered foul trouble, and Maryland still patiently poked at the Spartans’ defense to find open shots in the second half.

“We have to keep in mind we have to keep improving,” Williams said. “All good teams by January are different than they are right now, regardless of whether you’re starting the season out or you’ve played five games. You have to be in that mind-set where you want to get better, and I think we are.”

Winthrop also presents a curious choice for a nonconference opponent. The Eagles have finished in the top 100 of the RPI the last two years and probably have the talent to produce a similar season this winter.

Williams, an outspoken critic of last year’s NCAA tournament selection committee, wondered whether his team actually would benefit from this game in the committee’s eyes, arguing again that the Terps would be rewarded more for winning 22 or 23 games than for playing the Eagles.

“Look at who teams are playing,” Williams said. “Look at football. Look what they’re doing with that extra game. Who are they picking up? We’re playing Towson in 2011. Come on, let’s tell the truth. In football, it’s six wins [to become bowl eligible], and in basketball it is getting to over 20 wins. I don’t know if you should play a team as good as Winthrop.”

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