- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 12, 2003

The ACC tournament seems almost secondary to Maryland. With the NCAA tournament looming next week, the biggest incentive for the No.14 Terrapins to win the conference title might be to improve their seeding for the national title chase.

"If you take a look at the bigger scheme of things, maybe it's not that important," guard Drew Nicholas said yesterday, "but we're also playing for a [high] seed. A three seed is much different than a four seed because you don't have to play a No. 1 in the Sweet 16."

Maryland (19-8) opens the ACC tournament against North Carolina (16-14) on Friday, and the Terps seek to remain in Greensboro, N.C., for Sunday's championship game which could lead to a No. 3 seed hours later when NCAA brackets are announced. Otherwise, Maryland could be sent to the West Regional as a No. 5 seed.

The Terps haven't won the ACC tournament since 1984. However, last year they lost in the semifinals and later won the national title.

Essentially, the Terps already have done enough to warrant an NCAA invitation for the 10th straight year. The ACC tournament is just a warmup act.

"I'd like to win it, but I don't slit my wrists if we don't win it," coach Gary Williams said.

Maryland is only 2-6 against teams expected to reach the NCAA tournament and has two wins over N.C. State, which is on the bubble. Still, Williams said the Terps have been competitive enough in the losses to merit national respect. He's worried more about matchups than seedings.

"To finish second in the ACC deserves a good seed," Williams said. "I know we can play. We've played the Floridas and Notre Dames. We didn't beat them, but I know we can play with them. A lot of times seeding is not the number, but where you play and who you play. That becomes more important than the seeding [number]."

Maryland seeks to regain lost momentum. Before its overtime 80-78 loss at Virginia on Sunday, Maryland dominated ACC regular-season leader Wake Forest before blowout wins over North Carolina and Clemson and a last-second triumph over N.C. State in recent weeks.

"We really want to make a statement going into the NCAA tournament," Nicholas said. "We felt we were on a roll going into the Virginia game and that probably took a bit of our momentum. If we play like we're capable, everything will be all right."

The Virginia upset jolted Maryland's confidence. The Terps were outrebounded 59-36 and Williams joked of playing guard John Gilchrist at center after he grabbed five rebounds. Center Ryan Randle had six rebounds and forward Tahj Holden two.

"I told some of our big guys if we play like that as a team again our season's going to be over," Nicholas said. "It's just plan facts."

Said Holden: "To be outrebounded by almost 30 is embarrassing."

Players managed to quickly forget the loss and focus on practice. However, the loss forced their optimism to be tempered by realism about their postseason chances.

"It shows we're not invincible," forward Nik Caner-Medley said, "but we also feel we can beat any team."

Maryland's offense often flows through the frontcourt, despite guards Steve Blake (11.9 points) and Nicholas (17.7) being named first- and second-team All-ACC, respectively, on Monday. Blake expects lower scores in tournament games.

"When it gets this late in the season it's all about defense and rebounding," he said. "Defense is the biggest part."

Blake ended the season in a two-game slump, scoring only two points against N.C. State and six at Virginia. All were clutch late baskets, but Blake said the 3-for-17 shooting skid has forced him to contribute elsewhere. He delivered 10 assists against Virginia.

"The past few games I haven't felt like I was able to get good shots up and score so I was trying something different," he said. "You always want to make something happen. It's never too late so I took some shots. Hopefully, I'll be more consistent."

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