- The Washington Times - Friday, March 6, 2009

Even at different ends of town Tuesday night, there was a similar deflating feeling.

Down went Georgetown, a long-shot NCAA tournament hope that somehow played into a less comfortable position with a loss at St. John’s. Little more than an hour later, Maryland wasted a six-point lead and fell at home to No. 10 Wake Forest.

In the past 30 years, either the Hoyas or Terrapins - if not both - have earned an NCAA berth on all but two occasions (1993 and 2005). As for this season?

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“Sounds like an NIT game to me,” ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi said. “That would be something.”

Georgetown’s dilemma is more dire than Maryland’s. The Hoyas (15-13, 6-11 Big East) will gain little from pounding woeful DePaul on Saturday, and then will be tossed into the five-day maelstrom their conference is introducing this season.

All 16 Big East teams will play at Madison Square Garden beginning Tuesday, with the chaff of the conference relegated to what could be the most unwatchable 12 hours of big-time basketball outside of a typical day in the SEC.

But the Hoyas can’t stop there. They need wins - lots of them - and anything shy of a Big East title game appearance is unlikely to be enough.

“I don’t know if they have to win five, but they have to win three or four, and they have to be quality teams,” said Jerry Palm, the operator of CollegeRPI.com. “They can’t just muddle through and hope for the best. They haven’t shown since they beat Connecticut that they have the ability to put that kind of run together. I don’t see any realistic hope for that. There’s hope, but realistically no.”

The only reason a team with Georgetown’s tattered resume - a 3-10 record since Jan. 17 - even remains in the discussion is some fine work earlier in the season. The Hoyas, who own the nation’s strongest schedule, defeated Connecticut, Memphis and Syracuse early on, and added a victory at Villanova on Saturday.

Yet more is required, as the Hoyas understand.

“The Big East tournament is extremely critical for us,” coach John Thompson III said. “That’s stating the obvious. We have to win. We’ve had some good wins this year, but it’s hard to sit here after this disappointing loss and look at the big picture. … We’re going to have to come up and make a good showing.”

Matters are not so bleak in College Park, where the Terps (18-11, 7-8 ACC) are clinging to viability thanks to upsets of Michigan State and North Carolina. Maryland also avoided the mistakes of many other borderline tournament teams, tending to defeat the mediocre or worse opponents on their schedule (save MEAC leader Morgan State, which still constitutes a dubious defeat at this stage).

If the trend holds, Maryland could collect victories in Saturday’s regular-season finale at Virginia and in the opening round of the ACC tournament. But even that might not be enough for the vacillating Terps.

“They are among the most vulnerable to conference tournament upsets or a deep run by someone else,” Palm said. “They are close to the bottom of the at-large pool. … [If they win their next two, they’re] at about the same spot they’re in. They’re not beating anyone impressive. They’re just not hurting themselves, but they’re not really helping themselves in any way.”

It’s a familiar situation for Maryland, which has dealt with tournament speculation the past five years. In 2004 and 2007, the Terps uncorked spirited runs to gobble up an NCAA berth. But there have been fades as well, including when an 18-win team visited Charlottesville, Va., in the final weekend of the regular season last March - only to leave with a loss.

“This is different,” coach Gary Williams bristled when offered the comparison. “You’re wrong. You’re really wrong. This is a different team.”

There are no other local at-large hopes, though there are legitimate possibilities for two leagues to produce an automatic qualifier. American (22-7) is the No. 1 seed as it chases its second straight Patriot League title; the Eagles host Army in the semifinals Sunday.

Then there’s George Mason (20-9), the No. 2 seed in the CAA tournament. The CAA will be only a one-bid league this season, but the Patriots are well-positioned to make a run deep in the event. Those might be the area’s best hopes, especially with both Georgetown and Maryland looking squarely at the possibility of missing the 65-team field when it is announced March 15.

“You could certainly envision the two of them avoiding being shut out because of Maryland,” Lunardi said. “They’re a team that doesn’t play particularly well on the road. … I don’t think they’re consistent enough to win the two or three games down the stretch to get it done.

“If I was a betting man, I would be betting on both of them being in the NIT.”

• Staff writer Barker Davis contributed to this report.

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