- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2004

Maryland coach Gary Williams says the young Terrapins still can compete against the nation’s college basketball elite despite two straight losses.

Maryland (10-5, 1-3 ACC) plays three of its next four games on the road beginning tonight at Clemson (8-8, 1-4), a stretch that should indicate whether the Terps are a serious contender to reach their 11th straight NCAA tournament.

The competitive ACC might gain six postseason invitations, and Duke, Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Wake Forest seem assured of making the tournament. How well Maryland fares against the rest of the conference will determine its NCAA chances.

Williams said yesterday that outside criticism was without merit despite the Terps’ losses at No.12 Georgia Tech 81-71 on Jan.17 and to No.1 Duke 68-60 on Wednesday. Maryland’s victories over three ranked teams this season, including then-No.1 Florida, seem overlooked. Considering that the Terps have nine underclassmen, Williams doesn’t believe they have underperformed.

“Some people have forgotten we’ve beaten the No.1 team in the country [Florida], the team that’s probably winning the Big Ten [Wisconsin] and North Carolina,” he said. “We’re a good basketball team. We’ve played a very tough schedule, and we have nothing to be ashamed of. This team has done a great job of getting new people in the mix with people that were backups last year and playing very well against top-flight competition. … There’s no crisis.

“The league this year is as tough as I’ve ever seen it. The timing might not be good to have a young team, but that’s the way it is. I think we’ve done a good job of competing. We played Duke closer than any [other] team that lost to them, but yet after the game people thought we didn’t play that well.”

Maryland could quickly right itself against Clemson while starting a stretch of five winnable games before repeating the North Carolina-Georgia Tech-Duke gauntlet beginning Feb.15. The Terps have beaten the Tigers 11 straight, and another victory would quickly restore momentum. Players understand losing to highly-ranked opponents doesn’t necessarily make them a bad team.

“The psyche of the team is good right now,” forward Nik Caner-Medley said.

Maryland’s youth has undermined several late rallies, but it also has fueled comebacks against Florida and North Carolina. The Terps have lost only two games that weren’t largely decided in the final minute.

“We’re a pretty good team,” Williams said, “but if you want to beat ranked teams, you have to play a certain way and not make mistakes. You can get by, but not against that level of team [like Duke].”

Said guard Chris McCray: “Instead of close games, we have to close them out.”

Williams’ challenge this season was to build confidence. The Terps have been mercurial, posting a 3-3 mark against ranked teams with some extreme highs and lows. Now Williams has to remind them that the remaining 12 games are the ones that will decide their March fate.

“The league’s not over after four games,” he said. “We’ve had a tough early schedule in the league, but we have to understand we’ll get our chances to win some games here. We need road wins if we’re going to do anything in the conference.”

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