Dozens of basketball players preceded James Gist at Maryland. For the last half-century, none failed to savor a victory over Clemson in their first two seasons before him.
So as the junior considered the looming conference schedule on the eve of another unremarkable nonconference game late last month, he was already pondering how the Terrapins would handle their recent nemesis when it visited Comcast Center in a fortnight.
“My No. 1 team I’m ready for is Clemson. I’m ready for Clemson. I can’t wait for that game,” said Gist, who has endured four straight losses to the Tigers. “We haven’t beaten them yet, and I know we can. It’s always something we’ve done in the game.”
Indeed, whether it was inert interior defense, an invisible attempt to contest shots on the perimeter, a sure-to-fail laissez-faire approach to offense or a combination of all three, the Terps were at their worst against Clemson the last two seasons.
It will be difficult for Maryland (14-3, 0-2 ACC) to match its ineptitude from Wednesday’s 63-58 loss to Miami when it meets the No. 17 Tigers (17-0, 3-0) today. Yet even a rerun of its recent calamities against Clemson would be punished more severely than in the past.
The Tigers, after all, are the nation’s last remaining unbeaten team. Clemson is 3-0 in the ACC for the first time in 10 years, and has matched the 1986-87 team for the best start in school history.
No longer is a loss to the Tigers, who have progressed from conference doormat to NCAA tournament contender in coach Oliver Purnell’s four seasons, a reason for shock. The streak aside, the most telling part of today’s game might be how Maryland regroups from an ugly loss.
“It all depends on how you react to it,” coach Gary Williams said. “I think we’ll play well [today]. I just have a good feeling about our team. Sometimes when you get a quick turnaround in basketball after a loss it’s a great thing even if you wanted to dwell on it. You have to move on. That’s what we’ve done.”
They need to. The Terps shot an anemic 22.4 percent from the floor, well below their previous season-low of 38.7 percent. The offense could not decipher the Hurricanes’ zone, and Maryland struggled to work it inside and instead relied on attempts from the perimeter.
The Terps were most exposed in their rebounding effort, which could again be exploited since Clemson is the ACC’s top offensive rebounding team. Several times, the ball took the same trajectory — from the rim to off a forward’s fingertips and out of bounds for another Miami possession.
More often, Maryland was caught out of position and ceded a quick layup after an offensive rebound.
“We just have to step up and be men and be college basketball players and do the things that we were expected to do when we came in,” senior guard D.J. Strawberry said. “Our big guys have to rebound and our guards have to rebound, too. We have to have a team effort rebounding. We have to put the ball in the basket when it’s your turn.”
The Tigers might be better, but they are still the same program that helped derail Maryland the last two seasons. Those teams were decidedly erratic, but the series of losses to Clemson were a perfect microcosm for their struggles.
Without those setbacks, Maryland’s NCAA tournament streak might still be intact and Wednesday’s loss might not have evoked memories of why the Terps were relegated to the NIT the last two years.
But this isn’t necessarily a rerun. Maryland didn’t look at tape of Wednesday’s loss, and Williams noted wryly the Terps “shot the [heck] out of the ball” in Thursday’s practice.
“I’ve always told a team you have to deal with a tough loss and you have to deal with a great win,” Williams said. “They’re almost the same in terms of getting ready for the next game. You might be thrown off the track for different reasons, but you have to get ready. You can’t let the last game determine your success in the next game.”