- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 7, 2007

There went the Maryland basketball team again Tuesday night, losing at home to Virginia to fall to 3-6 in conference play.

The 1-4 and 2-5 starts prompted rushes to the Vault-O’-Media Guides, with interesting results.

Six teams have started 1-4 in ACC play and recovered to make the NCAA tournament (‘84 Duke, ‘84 Wake Forest, ‘86 Maryland, ‘90 Virginia, ‘96 Duke and ‘98 Florida State), while only four bounced back from a 2-5 start (‘76 Virginia, ‘84 Virginia, ‘86 Maryland and ‘04 Maryland).

The 3-6 list expands back to six teams, and some of them are holdovers from the last two searches.

However, there’s two new teams from the last decade, and thanks to Jerry Palm’s fantastic archive on collegerpi.com (which goes back to the 1993-94 season), they can be vetted a bit better than some of the older teams.

First, though, the repeat teams:

1976 Virginia. The Cavaliers finished 4-8, but their miracle run through the ACC tournament as a No. 6 seed at the Capital Centre sent them to a surprising NCAA tournament berth.

1984 Virginia. This edition of the ‘Hoos is the only one of this group to not reach the ACC tournament semifinals. Instead, Virginia lost to Wake Forest in a game that left coach Terry Holland despondent coupled with a 6-8 league record. The Cavaliers nevertheless earned a No. 7 seed and proceeded to reach the Final Four in 1 A.R. (After Ralph)

1986 Maryland. The fixture on all these lists is the Terrapins of Len Bias’ senior year. Maryland started 0-6, finished 6-8 and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament. A huge victory in the Terps’ turnaround came in Chapel Hill, where Maryland dealt North Carolina its first loss at the Dean Dome.

1990 Virginia. Like in ‘84, the Cavaliers wound up 6-8. This time, Bryant Stith and Co. knocked off North Carolina and Clemson to reach the ACC final. Virginia played up to its No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament and lost in the second round.

And now the two new additions, which are intriguing in different ways. It’s more fun to write about them than Maryland’s chances, but it’s fair to say the Terps don’t have the daunting strength of schedule of one of these teams, and would need a break or two to be anything like the second.

1998 Clemson. In what was to be Rick Barnes’ final go-round in Tigertown, Clemson actually started 3-7 and seemingly was buried by the first week of February. Its nonconference performance was reputable (wins over South Carolina and tournament-bound Iona) and the Tigers only played four games against teams outside the top 120 of the RPI. This, in case anyone was wondering, constitutes a tough schedule.

In fact, it was the No. 3 schedule on Selection Sunday. No one in the ACC ranked outside the top 100 in the RPI (Jeff Jones’ final Virginia team, with an RPI of 91, was the only team with an overall losing record). So it hardly mattered that the Tigers collected only two victories over NCAA-bound teams after Christmas (Florida State twice). Winning six of eight before a reputable two-point loss to Duke in the ACC semifinal was more than enough for a team with a final RPI of 28 to earn a No. 6 seed.

Things receded from there. The Tigers lost to Western Michigan in the first round, lost Barnes to Texas shortly thereafter and lost a whole lot of games once the talent evaporated two years later. About the only time Clemson has been mentioned with the NCAA tournament since then (well, before this year, anyway) was describing how they ruined Maryland’s postseason chances with three victories over the Terps in 2005.

2005 N.C. State. The Wolfpack had no imposing nonconference victories (only UL Lafayette even finished with a winning record), and they went 0-4 against Duke and North Carolina. They finished with an RPI of 63 (usually not NCAA material) and a solid-though-not-eye-popping strength of schedule of 42.

So how did this team even earn an invitation, let alone overcome a slow start.

Well, Julius Hodge is a good chunk of the reason. A couple strong games from Ilian Evtimov is another. And Chris Paul’s egregious poor judgment had a role as well.

Herb Sendek’s team did reverse what actually was a 3-7 start with a nice five-game stretch in February. The Wolfpack, led by the charismatic Hodge, won at Georgia Tech and Virginia (the latter victory which helped shuffle Pete Gillen into unemployment as a coach) and routed Maryland and Virginia Tech at home. The only setback was a 10-point loss at North Carolina, but it’s hard to hold a defeat against a national title contender (and ultimately, national champion) against anyone.

So the Wolfpack rolled into the regular season finale against highly regarded Wake Forest at 17-11, 7-8 in the league and a quintessential bubble team. Except for one teensy problem — they hadn’t beaten a team in top 25 of the RPI all year.

It didn’t change that game as Wake Forest pulled out a 55-53 victory. But something else did happen. Wake’s Chris Paul punched Hodge in the groin and was suspended for his first game in the ACC tournament. And that contest, conveniently enough, was against N.C. State after Evtimov scored a game-high 18

points as the Wolfpack dispatched Florida State in the first round.

Without Paul, the Demon Deacons seemed lost. And the Wolfpack, almost always a crafty tournament team under Sendek, collected their top-25 RPI win behind 22 points from Hodge and 18 more from Evtimov to stake their claim to a No. 10 seed. State wound up reaching the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1989, further forming unrealistic expectations in Raleigh that ultimately prompted Sendek to bail after a 22-10 season and a trip to the second round of the NCAA tournament wasn’t good enough for rabid fans last year.

So what of these two examples can be culled for this year’s Terps?

Well, both teams finished 7-9 in league play, so that’s a fair target for Maryland even if the overall profiles are different. It would require a 4-3 finish in league play, the type of record an inconsistent team could produce.

It’s tough to shake the feeling Maryland will probably remain up-and-down enough to still be in the postseason hunt a month from now when the ACC tournament commences. What isn’t so certain is whether the Terps can string together a 6-2 stretch like ‘98 Clemson, or a 6-3 streak like ‘05 N.C. State to make it a lot easier on the NCAA selection committee, and more importantly, for themselves.

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