- The Washington Times - Monday, March 7, 2005

The We’re No. 66 Tournament is beckoning the Big Three of Washington’s college hoops: Maryland, Georgetown and George Washington.

This is the unappealing prospect that seemed improbable going into February.

The Terrapins have been on the so-called bubble of the 65-team NCAA tournament in the midst of a three-game losing streak, which, in their case, is either wishful thinking or an achievement to savor around a 16-11 record.

The Terps are an extreme sample of the bubble, just good enough to be baffling to everyone but the RPI computer.

The Terps have countered two quality victories over the Duke Blue Devils with two incriminating losses to the Clemson Tigers, an up-and-down proposition that adequately reflects their season. The zillion exhortations of coach Gary Williams have merited only the slightest corrections.

His is a program four years removed from the Final Four, three years removed from the national championship, two years removed from the Sweet Sixteen and one year removed the ACC championship. A repeat of the latter is now the program’s best hope, slim though it is, to salvage what could have been.

No apologies are necessary, given the program’s 11 consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament. The Terps are entitled not to measure up on occasion, and one failure out of 12 certainly qualifies as the rare occasion.

Not that this eases the disappointment of the animated Williams, a serial sweater who is down to politicking.

He is hardly one to relax and hardly one to concede the storehouse of goodwill.

He has won a lot, and won consistently, and really, the Washington region is far too cosmopolitan to be university-centric. This is not Storrs, Conn., to state the obvious, which is a darn good thing if your team is left to be the Rubik’s Cube of college basketball.

About a month ago, Washington’s three leading college basketball programs appeared well on their way to securing a berth in the NCAA tournament.

For Georgetown and George Washington, in particular, it was taken to be a sign of their return to prominence.

The cheering has turned out be somewhat premature, the implicit fear of John Thompson III in the touchy-feely dispatches touting the recovery of the Hoyas before a five-game losing streak dropped their record to 16-11.

Yet the Hoyas have traveled a good distance from the days of losing to a team that put six players on the court and to a scandal-plagued team that dressed out the managers, intramural-league stars and a couple of spectators.

They are almost there, perhaps one recruiting class away from being a national program again.

The increasingly marginalized NIT is the consolation prize of sorts, although it is a college date borne of desperation. The NIT is not on anyone’s to-do list in February.

It has come to be an anachronism, especially in the era of the NCAA Academic Progress Report. Books, it seems, even come second to the NIT.

Of course, given where they have been, Georgetown and George Washington have good reasons to accept an invitation to the NIT. For them, next season starts this season. For the players, being in the tournament beats being in the weight room.

All this is subject to change in the days ahead, which is the compelling element of March. Afterthoughts all too often catch a wave in a conference tournament and ride it all the way to Selection Sunday, as the Terps did last season.

This time around, the Terps have the added benefit of the ACC tournament being held on Fun Street.

By the way, all the talk of Miami and Virginia Tech being football-only schools turned out to be misplaced.

If the Terps either end up in the NIT or elect to stay home, they can point to the two losses against the ACC newcomers, the last one to Virginia Tech hurting the most.

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