For a night, Maryland offered up an ominous preview of ACC play.
The Terps didn’t move the ball. They missed layups. They were passive getting back on defense. They were lethargic in chasing down rebounds.
For all the woes, Maryland’s final deficit Wednesday against Morgan State was one point in a game it easily could have won. And with Georgia Tech (9-5, 0-1 ACC) arriving for the conference opener Saturday at Comcast Center, coach Gary Williams is undeterred about the prospects of his Terrapins (11-3).
“We have a chance to be a good team in the ACC,” he said Thursday. “I really believe that. But the next 16 games, you can’t play like that. Where that came from, I don’t know.”
He can only hope it vanishes as quickly as it arrived. While Maryland hardly produced masterpieces during a seven-game winning streak, it still punched out double-digit victory margins for much of December. The loss to a smaller in-state opponent only reinforced the reality that Maryland’s room for error is much like its lineup - smaller than in the past.
Maryland’s game plan is based on avoiding turnovers, eschewing bad shots and receiving solid play from junior guard Greivis Vasquez. Sound defensive principles - evidenced by the fact that only one opponent has topped 75 points - are a staple as well.
Then again, the Terps had a season-high 21 turnovers and shot below 40 percent for only the second time in Wednesday’s 66-65 loss. Vasquez shot 5-for-21 while not bothering to even try to pass.
“We’ve played a style of play we’ve accepted,” Williams said. “We didn’t do it [Wednesday], and once again I’m saying this with the idea that [that] was a one-game deal. I think we committed to moving the ball and getting good shots and good looks, and we did. It’s going to get tougher because the teams in the league are bigger than the teams we’ve played.”
Therein lies Maryland’s greatest problem, and it is one the program knew would be an issue all season. Georgetown and Gonzaga, a pair of teams with larger frontcourts, easily handled the Terps in November, and Morgan State used its size to fluster Maryland this week.
Figuring out how to play against larger teams - and with three starters at 6-foot-8 or taller, Georgia Tech qualifies - is the next step for Maryland. Plenty of other opportunities loom; Clemson, North Carolina and Wake Forest are among the league’s larger teams.
Williams insists the problem requires a teamwide solution, though improved play from sophomores Braxton Dupree and Dino Gregory would help as well. Saturday also marks the first time senior Dave Neal - undersized for an ACC forward at 6-7 - will start against a league opponent.
Collectively, it’s a giant lingering question, especially after an inopportune stumble.
“It’s damaging, but now we have ACC play and we have 16 games left,” Neal said. “We can still make a statement.”
The Terps’ early-season work, notwithstanding the Morgan State loss, might have been their best boast. Williams invoked some preseason predictions that the Terps would finish last in the ACC, which seems less likely given the nonconference work.
Still, this is far from a wise time to gloat. Maryland must play Duke, Miami and North Carolina twice, and its only meeting with Clemson is on the road. While the Terps’ nonconference resume is better than in recent years, they still have much to accomplish to earn their way into NCAA tournament discussion.
“We have too much work to do,” Williams said. “We have two good wins against Michigan and Michigan State, but we have to prove some stuff, still, in my mind. I want to prove we can play with anybody.
“You can’t beat them all the time, but I want to play with anybody. That’s what I want to prove.”