Maryland visits Florida State tonight seeking to avoid its first three-game losing streak in two years.
The No.16 Terrapins (14-6, 6-3 ACC) fell eight spots in the rankings after losing to Virginia and Georgia Tech in the past week. With ACC-leading Wake Forest coming to Comcast Center on Sunday and a trip to Duke on Feb.19, Maryland suddenly must beat Florida State (11-9, 2-7) to avoid tumbling hard as the end of the regular season nears.
“I would consider this a must-win,” guard Steve Blake said yesterday. “If we lost a third [in a row], it would be pretty devastating to what we want to achieve this year … to believe we can have a chance to do big things this year.”
Said center Ryan Randle: “It’s a must-win. A must. You have to go out like it’s a tournament game, like it’s the last game you’ll ever play. You just focus on one thing only the win.”
Added forward Tahj Holden: “Any time you lose three straight from the conference, it’s hard to come back.”
However, coach Gary Williams wasn’t willing to concede the game’s postseason implications given that another six remain. He recalled rebounding from a February slide in 2001 to make the Final Four.
“We’ve been in situations here where we lost five out of six and got to the Final Four,” he said. “Once you have that experience behind you, you realize things can turn around rapidly. This would be a big win for us just because we’ve lost two. But other teams in the league have lost two. You don’t panic. We’re tied for second and ranked 16th in the country. We just have to play better. I think the players understand … don’t worry about the other team. Worry about how well we play. … You can’t go away because you had a bad week.”
Williams has seemed unusually calm since falling to Georgia Tech 90-84 on Sunday. He tried to downplay high expectations following last year’s national championship without saying a third straight Final Four run isn’t possible.
“We feel good about ourselves,” he said. “It’s been a crazy year in college basketball. There’s nobody immune from going through periods where you don’t play well. You can’t be shaken because you lost two games. You have to be tough enough to handle that. Where we’ve been the last nine years, when you lose two everybody looks at that as what’s wrong. Nothing’s wrong. We caught Virginia in an emotional game and Georgia Tech hasn’t lost at home.”
However, Maryland hasn’t played well since beating then-No.1 Duke on Jan.18 and North Carolina four days later, marking the Terps’ best consecutive outings this season. Maryland struggled past Clemson and N.C. State and was lackluster against overmatched Loyola despite stretching its winning streak to five.
The Terps haven’t played defense well in the two losses. Virginia shot 49.1 percent and Georgia Tech 55.6 against Maryland, which had been No.2 in the nation in field goal defense. The Terps were sometimes confused over assignments, permitting open shots, or a step slow, letting an opponent drive through the lane.
Williams said being in the midst of the toughest stretch of the season could be the cause of the slump.
“Mentally, you get tired sometimes and you’re not moving as well as you’d like. Every team goes through a part of its schedule you don’t want, but you have to deal with it,” he said. “This is the time where you get into a lull and you have to break out of it.”
A lineup change could be the response. Williams may consider making forward Nik Caner-Medley a starter again after seven games as the sixth man. The freshman scored 14 points with six offensive rebounds and four steals against Georgia Tech in a season-high 26 minutes.
“He was the best freshman in the nation on Sunday,” Williams said. “You think about different combinations. We’ll see what’s best for Florida State.”