- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 27, 2003

Maryland's bid for the ACC tournament's top seed remains muddied although two regular-season games remain.

The No. 14 Terrapins (18-7, 10-4 ACC) trail Wake Forest (20-4, 10-3) and are tied with Duke (20-4, 10-4) in a three-way race that probably will go to season's end. None has a clear edge in tiebreakers. Should Maryland, Wake Forest and Duke finish deadlocked, head-to-head results are moot because each series was split.

If N.C. State (15-9, 8-5) finishes fourth as expected, Maryland's trip to Raleigh on Sunday could prove decisive for seeding. Maryland and Wake Forest are 1-0 against N.C. State, with both teams playing the rematch in Raleigh. Duke split with N.C. State, so the Blue Devils would become the third seed if both the Terps and the Demon Deacons beat the Wolfpack.

Clemson, Georgia Tech or Virginia could finish fifth. Maryland is 2-0 against Clemson, 1-1 against Georgia Tech and 0-1 against Virginia with a March 9 rematch in Charlottesville. Wake Forest is 2-0 against Georgia Tech, 1-1 against Virginia and 1-0 against Clemson with the second meeting scheduled Saturday.

Getting the top seed for the March 13-16 tournament in Greensboro, N.C., probably means avoiding Duke until the finals because the second and third seeds would meet in the semifinals. The runner-up opens against the seventh seed at 7 p.m. on March 14 instead of playing the third-sixth game at 9:30 p.m.

The Terps have lost in the ACC tournament semifinals in seven of the last eight years.

Looking ahead to the NCAA tournament, Maryland remains hopeful of gaining a top four seed in Boston or Tampa, Fla., by winning its final two regular-season games and an ACC tournament first-round game. If the Terps lose any of those games they could be sent as far as Spokane, Wash., as a mid-level seed.

Still, coach Gary Williams appreciates the Terps returning to the NCAA tournament for the 10th straight year. He was concerned that the defending national champions would be hampered by losing four starters.

"People just assumed we'd be back in the NCAA tournament," he said. "To lose four starters that were great players, there was no guarantee there. That was our first goal. And then once you get there, we have the type of team that can play. We're going to be as experienced [as anyone] when we get there."

The Terps have recovered well from a two loses to win three of their last four. Maryland trounced North Carolina 96-56 on Saturday and Clemson 91-52 on Tuesday. Guard Drew Nicholas joked that "Coach Williams was even happy for a change."

Said point guard Steve Blake: "This just proves just how good we can be. We want to do big things."

The defensive improvement, especially rebounding, has been the difference. The transition offense flows off the frontcourt's rebounding to let Maryland regularly run past opponents. The Terps are playing their best of the season, with five players scoring in double figures against Clemson.

"You don't want to be playing your best basketball in January and December. You want to play your best in February and March," forward Tahj Holden said. "Guys are really understanding the offense and what we're trying to do on defense."

But can Maryland thrive away from Comcast Center, where it finished 14-2 in its first season? Maryland travels to N.C. State and Virginia before playing postseason games that aren't remotely nearby.

"We're mentally tough we've proven that," Williams said. "I don't think we'd duck anybody in a one-game situation. … Can you keep playing like this? I don't know, but we're hitting it at a pretty good time. We're determined to be as good as we can possibly play this year, whatever that is."

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