Tuesday, January 23, 2007

At this stage during the last two seasons, the Maryland basketball team was trying to figure out just how to plug a gap left when a key player was lost for the rest of the season. The problems never were entirely solved as the Terrapins limped to consecutive NIT berths.

There are no such obvious deficiencies this season. The Terps’ top defensive player hasn’t suffered a torn ACL as in 2005, when D.J. Strawberry was injured in practice. Nor is there an academic casualty as in 2006, when Chris McCray was declared ineligible.

So while Maryland isn’t searching for answers on the fly, as it has in the past, it is in another type of quandary after Sunday’s 67-64 overtime loss at No. 24 Virginia Tech. The Terps (15-5) are 1-4 in the ACC for the first time in 14 years and only a half-game ahead of last-place Wake Forest.

Historically, it is not an impossible situation. Six ACC teams have gained NCAA tournament bids after 1-4 league starts, but none have done it since Florida State in 1998.

Only once has a team lost at least five of its first six league games and still reached the tournament — Maryland in 1986, Len Bias’ senior year — making tomorrow night’s visit from Georgia Tech even more imperative.

“It’s a concern, but it’s something you can come back from,” Strawberry said Sunday. “We played hard on the road, [but] it’s tough to get road wins. We could have got one here, and now we have to move on and get ready for Wednesday. If we win Wednesday, I think we’ll be OK going into Florida State [Jan.[ThSp]30].”

At least the Terps aren’t facing manpower problems, a problem for nearly half of the conference’s other teams. Miami has lost four frontcourt players to injury — three for the rest of the season — and Boston College dismissed center Sean Williams and a teammate last week.

North Carolina (Bobby Frasor) and N.C. State (Engin Atsur) are without injured guards, and Georgia Tech suspended guard Lewis Clinch for the rest of the season this month.

Maryland, though, hasn’t been forced to juggle its lineup, and the continuity could eventually be useful — even if it hasn’t prevented the Terps from losing three of four since ACC play resumed Jan. 10.

At the very least, it’s been a welcome non-issue for a program accustomed to recalibrating itself in the middle of the season.

“It’s very disruptive,” Strawberry said earlier this month. “It messes up the rotation; it kills some of the camaraderie between the teammates. Last year when we lost Chris, he was probably one of the most liked guys on the team. Everybody kind of shut down after that and kind of went their separate ways. We have to have everybody on the same page, [and] we have to have everybody together.”

The Terps seem united despite the recent struggles, and maintaining a full complement of players no doubt has helped. Coach Gary Williams remained optimistic about a turnaround starting tomorrow and lauded the Terps’ effort, particularly a defense that forced Virginia Tech guards Zabian Dowdell and Jamon Gordon to earn their combined 35 points.

Yet with at least one basic facet critically absent in the three recent losses — shooting and rebounding against Miami, defense at Virginia and shooting against the Hokies — it probably is fair to call the last two weeks a puzzling stretch, and the next two weeks a vital one.

“It’s not frustration,” forward James Gist said. “It’s just we know we have to get it done. We know we have to do it. As long as we play hard like we did [Sunday], we know we’ll be all right.”

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