- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Maryland coach Gary Williams seemed unfazed last month by his team’s slow start in ACC play and cautioned against thinking too far ahead about the NCAA tournament.

Winning four out of five games — and enhancing an increasingly solid postseason profile — hasn’t changed his outlook.

The Terrapins bring a three-game winning streak into tonight’s meeting with Florida State at Comcast Center. But with four regular-season games remaining, the NCAA tournament is not an optimal discussion topic for Williams.

“I look at the polls and I see teams’ records in there; I see RPIs, I see strength of schedules,” Williams said. “You don’t worry about it. You just worry about Florida State, which beat us soundly the first time, and that’s enough to worry about.”

Still, the Terps (20-7, 6-6 ACC) have arrived at a plateau that eventually has led to an at-large berth for ACC teams for more than two decades. While collecting a specific number of victories does not ensure an NCAA berth, earning more than 20 doesn’t hurt as the tournament committee evaluates teams.

Only three teams from the six major conferences and their forerunners (including the Big Eight) have won 20 games against Division I teams, were eligible for the postseason and missed the tournament since the field expanded to 64 in 1985. Only one of those teams — 2001 Alabama — won 21 games.

There is an added wrinkle this season to skew those figures. NCAA legislation enacted this season permits teams to play either 29 games or 27 games plus an exempt tournament, which Maryland did when it won the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. Logically, more teams will reach the 20-win plateau with more games on the schedule.

That makes 20 victories, a figure tinged with pyrite rather than gold in the first place, even less magical. And it means the Terps still need a few more wins in the next three weeks to feel secure about their NCAA chances.

One could come tonight against the struggling Seminoles (17-10, 5-8), who have lost four straight since fending off Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 4. The Terps also have two games against teams they’ve defeated this month (at Duke and home against N.C. State), as well as the ACC tournament.

“When I look at Maryland, I don’t think 20 wins will be enough, because you’re talking about losing five in a row and at least one would be a pretty bad loss,” said collegerpi.com’s Jerry Palm, whose site replicates the RPI formula the selection committee uses to help gauge teams. “Twenty-two will be enough. There’s no reason to think that won’t happen.”

There would be an added sense of inevitability if Maryland avenges last month’s ugly loss to Florida State. Both teams’ defenses went on sabbatical in the first half, and the Seminoles’ backcourt continued to sizzle after the break in a 96-79 victory.

Guards Toney Douglas (now out with a broken hand), Jason Rich and Isaiah Swann all scored at least 15 points that night, the only time it has happened this season. But Maryland’s backcourt is playing better, with D.J. Strawberry and Greivis Vasquez coming off arguably their best weeks of the season.

“I feel we owe them,” Strawberry said. “Down there, they kind of embarrassed us. Their guard play, I felt it was better than ours. I think we have a lot to prove [tonight], and I’m going in there with a chip on my shoulder and I hope everybody else is.”

A victory would further bolster the Terps, who are seeking their first post-New Year’s four-game winning streak since taking six straight late in the 2003-04 season. Even that season Maryland appeared to be a tenuous NCAA possibility until March, and the last two seasons ended in trips to the NIT.

With another victory or two, the Terps probably won’t endure comparisons to those teams again this season.

“Last year they never once looked like a tournament team,” Palm said. “This year’s team has never been spectacular, but they’ve never shot themselves in the foot as so many teams do. If they don’t do that, they’re fine.”

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