- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 11, 2007

There was no way D.J. Strawberry would have guessed Maryland was going to come out a deflated group on Tuesday, no sign of sinking further away from an NCAA tournament berth with another loss.

And unsurprisingly, there were no obvious answers for the Terrapins’ continued inconsistency.

“It’s two different teams,” Strawberry said. “We’re not practicing like this.”

Of late, there rarely is an inkling of which Maryland will show up for the majority of any game, a point that befuddles even the Terps themselves heading into tonight’s meeting with No. 16 Duke at Comcast Center.

There’s the occasional complete game, but the last month has included far more partial performances. The latest was a 69-65 loss to Virginia, a night in which the Terps might have been all right if only the final 10 minutes counted.

“It’s just real frustrating — real frustrating,” junior forward James Gist said. “We just have to find something to get us going. It’s not hard to get one win, it’s just hard to get two wins and then three wins and once we do that, we’ll be a great team. I believe we can do it; we just have to do it.”

And soon. The Terps (17-7, 3-6 ACC) have only seven regular season games remaining, including two against Duke (18-6, 5-5) and another against national title contender North Carolina.

Only six teams in conference history have dug their way out of a 3-6 hole in league play to reach the NCAA tournament, and Maryland’s postseason resume is starting to look much less shiny than anticipated.

The early victories over Michigan State and Illinois came against teams stuck in their own fight for NCAA tournament legitimacy, not Big Ten title contenders. Toppling Clemson is still a helpful victory, but it came in the midst of a 3-5 slide during which the Terps haven’t won consecutive games.

On the surface, coach Gary Williams has remained upbeat about Maryland’s day-to-day effort. Despite obviously growing weary throughout Tuesday’s loss, he remains supportive of a group he has repeatedly said he likes all season.

“I don’t think you gain anything right now by being negative,” Williams said. “I think you have to look to the next game. If you look at our league this year, if you can put together a three-game winning streak, it’s amazing what that does in the standings. We need to get a win, and if you get that win then you can start thinking along those terms.”

That hot stretch, though, hasn’t materialized for Maryland. It followed its victory over Clemson with a pounding at Virginia and its thrashing of Georgia Tech with a defense-optional loss at Florida State. Then came Tuesday’s sluggishness following a victory at Wake Forest.

An encore tonight — 10 strong minutes failing to overcome 30 listless ones — will only make the Terps’ situation worse and make a late winning streak an even greater necessity.

“Each individual has their own agenda to try to get themselves going,” senior guard Mike Jones said. “I think it’s their responsibility as individuals to get themselves ready. The last 10 minutes was a key example. That’s our team, that’s who we are, that’s how we can play. It’s just a matter of putting it all together.”

Doing so against Duke — even as the Blue Devils have lost three straight in a season for the first time since 1996 — will be troublesome. Duke leads the ACC in scoring defense and early in the season embraced an approach to harass opponents on every possession.

And while the Blue Devils aren’t nearly as explosive on offense as they have been in the past, they still can exploit a defensively deficient team with their cerebral play.

“It reminds me of when I was in the Big Ten and playing Indiana,” Williams said. “[Bob] Knight ran a motion passing game, which wasn’t real complicated, but if you made a defensive mistake like covering a screen or not helping, the ball would be in that guy’s hands. Duke reminds me a lot of that, the way they find open people in their offense.”

While Duke is smarting from its slide, which includes missing game-winning shots at the buzzer to Virginia and Florida State, Maryland probably needs the boost even more. Even if Williams doesn’t know how many victories his team needs to earn an NCAA tournament bid, it is clear the Terps need more wins and have fewer opportunities remaining to collect them.

“We have to win. Sunday; we have to win on Sunday,” freshman guard Greivis Vasquez said. “That’s all I have to say. We have to win.”

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