- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Suddenly, Maryland looks vulnerable on the eve of the postseason.

The No. 14 Terrapins (19-8) open the ACC tournament against North Carolina (16-14) on Friday with their season-long frontcourt weakness evident again after Sunday's 80-78 overtime loss at Virginia. Maryland only will remain alive in the ACC and NCAA tournaments as long as guard Drew Nicholas produces from the outside because the inside game remains inconsistent.

Maryland was outrebounded 59-36 by Virginia, which came off seven straight losses and started center Jason Rogers for the first time only because it was the senior's final home game. The Cavaliers even grabbed 23 offensive rebounds for 25 second-chance points.

Terps center Ryan Randle and Tahj Holden managed only two points and two rebounds in the first half, and Randle blew the game-tying basket at the buzzer on an uncontested putback. Forward Jamar Smith missed four dunks while converting only two of 10 shots, none of which was farther than a few feet.

Maryland easily defeated North Carolina twice this season as the Terps manhandled the Tar Heels' frontcourt. However, probable semifinal foe No. 12 Duke (21-6) outlasted the Terps 75-70 on Feb. 19 for a split of the season series by outplaying Maryland underneath. The Terps only outrebounded ACC opponents by 2.9 a game this season and were streaky.

The frontcourt troubles mean Maryland's backcourt is the key to a third straight Final Four appearance. However, that has been expected given guard Steve Blake was the only returning starter from last year's national champion and Nicholas is the Terps' leading scorer.

Blake was named to the All-ACC first team yesterday, while Nicholas was on the second team. They can be dominating and deflating for the Terps in the same game. Both missed potential game-winners in overtime against Virginia. Blake didn't even score until the final 1:26 of regulation after just two points in the preceding game. He still managed 10 assists against Virginia, including two classic seam-splitters, but didn't look for his shot regularly after a slow start.

Nicholas scored 27 points against Virginia and averaged a solid 17.2 this season. When he's hot, Maryland's transition offense is unstoppable. If Nicholas struggles, Maryland may bring back its three-guard offense with John Gilchrist in the lineup rather than relying on the frontcourt.

Perhaps the worst part of the Virginia loss is its possible impact on the NCAA seeding. Maryland's second seed in the ACC tournament was assured before tipoff after Duke lost hours earlier, but missing its team-record seventh straight 20-win regular season might mean Maryland has to reach the ACC tournament final for a chance at a top-four seed in the NCAAs. Otherwise, an early exit could send Maryland to the West Region as a No. 5, which greatly decreases its chances of reaching the Sweet 16 for the fifth time in six years.

Nicholas dismissed the draining loss that left many players slumped at their lockers long afterward. After all, Maryland rebounded from an ACC tournament upset last season to win the national crown.

"I remember the N.C. State loss last year in the ACC semifinals," he said, "and look what happened after that. The potential is still there."

Several Terps still believe taking the ACC tournament can reap a top-three seed. However, the Virginia loss makes that doubtful after eight regular-season losses that included a sweep by the Cavaliers for the first time in 10 years.

"We're playing for seeding," Holden said. "Whoever wins the ACC tournament has a good chance to be a two, three, maybe even a one seed. The NCAA seeding is always important. If we win the tournament we have a really good chance of being at least a two."

Ultimately, the Terps ended the regular season about where they were expected with four new starters and five newcomers. Maryland overcame a rocky 4-3 start and the burden of being the biggest game of the year for opponents.

"They had to take everybody's shot as the defending national champions," coach Gary Williams said. "It's been rewarding to watch them develop. In preseason, there were some funny things with the rankings. Some were really ridiculously high, and some were ridiculously low. Our seniors did a good job of never losing their confidence in their games. We could have gone the other way."

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