Tough stretch awaits Terps

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Maryland celebrated a cathartic defeat of Virginia Tech on Saturday, exactly three bumpy months since the season commenced.

It leaves a bit less than four weeks until Selection Sunday, but the Terrapins found themselves in an intriguing place after pulling even in ACC play: the position to politick for an NCAA tournament berth.

The validity of Maryland’s postseason pleas cannot be determined until the final six regular-season contests and the ACC tournament unfold. But in some ways, it is a minor victory for the Terps (16-8, 5-5), who were pegged to finish in the bottom half of the conference well before any games were played.

“Coming into this season, not many people expected a lot of things from us,” forward Dave Neal said. “If we make the tournament, it’ll show the public we have some players on this team. We don’t have the best players. We don’t have a Hasheem Thabeet or a bunch of McDonald’s All-Americans, but we have a great group of guys that love playing together.”

Reaching the preferred postseason tournament, though, still won’t be easy.

Starting with Tuesday’s visit to No. 13 Clemson (20-4, 6-4), the Terps will face a treacherous finishing stretch. Four of their last six games are against top-15 opponents. The other two are on the road.

There isn’t a magic number of victories to ensure an NCAA berth, and banking on conference affiliation as support is foolish since the selection committee evaluates teams and not leagues. But Maryland still has plenty to accomplish if it is to return to the tournament after a one-year hiatus.

“They need to stay afloat,” said Jerry Palm, who owns and operates CollegeRPI.com. “If they’re below .500 [in the ACC], that’s probably not going to work. If they’re .500, that’s probably not going to work, though there’s always hope with the ACC tournament. Get to 9-7, and that might work.”

To do so would require the Terps to summon superlative performances against the conference’s elite. Maryland already has a 41-point loss to Duke, and the Terps permitted North Carolina to score 108 points earlier this month. Both Tobacco Road titans visit Comcast Center in the next eight days.

Outside of those two games, Maryland also plays host to Wake Forest on March 3. Then there is Tuesday’s game against the Tigers, which gives Maryland a chance to win its fourth outing in its last five.

“I’m not a Joe Lunardi or anybody, but I think .500 in the ACC this year is going to get you into the tournament,” Neal said with a reference to an ESPN analyst. “I think they’re going to have to take eight teams just because of how competitive the conference has been this year.”

Regardless if what is required, the Terps would help themselves immensely with a victory tonight. It is their last road game against a credible NCAA tournament contender (Maryland still must visit N.C. State and Virginia) and would emphatically improve a 3-6 record outside of College Park.

“N.C. State and Virginia don’t look like sure things because of how they’ve played on the road,” Palm said. “Clemson’s coming off a loss, and they might win by 30. They’re not going to be real happy. It’s a tough spot to be in, but it’s better than being in Georgia Tech’s spot. It’s not hopeless for them, but it’s very difficult. Of course, coaches would tell you that it’s opportunities for quality wins.”

Coach Gary Williams wasn’t about to engage in a discourse of his team’s longer-term prospects. It’s not a usual tack for Williams, who occasionally grumbles about how an 8-8 league record no longer is an indicator of a likely NCAA berth. Since 2005, three of the seven ACC teams to finish with that record did not earn NCAA invites - including the Terps in 2006 and 2008.

Still, there’s little question Maryland has accomplished something to have worked its way into the discussion.

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