by David Elfin

Nine years ago this week, Maryland entered the ACC Tournament at just 16-11. Coach Gary Williams’ Terps had won three of their last four games, including a one-point squeaker at N.C. State, but their 10-year streak of reaching the NCAA Tournament seemed to sure to be ending.

No player of consequence from the 2002 national champions remained. Of the eight Terps who were seeing significant action, four were freshmen and three were sophomores.

However, sixth-seeded Maryland opened the ACC Tournament in Greensboro, N.C. by edging Wake Forest 87-86 on John Gilchrist’s late free throw. The next day, the sophomore poured in a career-high 30 points in an 85-82 escape of the Wolfpack. And after the Terps blew a 12-point second half lead against Duke, the five-time defending champion, Gilchrist converted a three-point play to force overtime. He finished with 26 points as Maryland prevailed 95-87 to win its first ACC title in 20 years and the conference’s automatic NCAA bid.

“A lot of people had us out of the [NCAA] tournament a few weeks ago, so it’s a big thrill,” Williams said.

Fast forward a decade and Maryland is in a similarly precarious position entering this week’s ACC Tournament. Second-year coach Mark Turgeon’s 20-11 Terps have lost three of their last four games, winning only 67-57 at Wake Forest and having blown a 17-point lead at Virginia four days ago. Senior forward James Padgett is the only player with NCAA experience for Maryland although sophomore forward Dez Wells did play in last year’s tournament for Xavier. Of the 10 players who have seen extensive action, four are freshmen and three are sophomores.

The good news for Turgeon and Co. is that while the Terps are seeded seventh, their opponent today in Greensboro is Wake, whom they not only beat 12 days ago on the road but whom they pounded 86-60 on Feb. 2 at Comcast Center.

However, if the Terps can beat the Demon Deacons for a third time in six weeks, their reward is a date with second-seeded Duke tomorrow. Maryland stunned the Blue Devils 83-81 at home in Feb. 16, but since then, Duke has regained the services of previously injured 6-foot-11 forward Ryan Kelly, its leading rebounder and second-leading scorer. The Blue Devils were talented enough minus Kelly to crush the Terps 84-64 on Jan. 26.

No wonder that Turgeon’s already looking ahead to 2013-14, not the NCAAs.

“I came here to build a great program and we’re taking steps towards that,” said Turgeon, whose Terps didn’t have a player make the all-ACC first, second or third team for the first time in 20 seasons. “We’re much further along than I anticipated at this point in time. We’ve got a Wake Forest team that’s going to be inspired to play against us because we’ve beaten them twice. If we’re lucky enough to win that one, we’ll go from there. We just want to keep getting better. We’re about building the program. We’re a better team than we were last year. Maybe lost a game or two we didn’t expect to lose this year, but we’re getting better. [We] played well at Virginia but just came up short. That was the worst I’ve seen our guys hurt after the game so we’re getting somewhere. They’re investing a lot more into our program, and the young guys are starting to grow up. [We] want to get better, get our confidence going into the ACC tournament and then whatever postseason we play after that.”

Wells is more focused on the ACC, however.

“It’s really dangerous when you get to tournament time because you don’t have to be the best team, you just have to be the best team on a given night for 40 minutes,” he said.

Virginia wasn’t better than Maryland for many of the 40 minutes in Charlottesville last Sunday, but its victory kept alive its hopes of securing a second straight NCAA berth. At 21-10, 11-7, the Cavaliers earned the fourth seed in the ACC Tournament meaning they’ll open play in tomorrow’s quarterfinals against the winner of today’s N.C. State-Virginia Tech matchup.

“We’re not looking forward to the NCAA tournament,” maintained Virginia freshman guard Justin Anderson. “That stuff’s gonna come. Right now we’re eyes on the prize. Eyes on the prize is the next game and we’re trying to work to an ACC championship.”

Presuming they beat the Wolfpack or Hokies, the Cavs would be 22-10 heading into an expected semifinal showdown with top-seeded Miami. While an upset would almost surely seal an NCAA invitation, a defeat could mean Virginia would join Maryland in the NIT. That’s because coach Tony Bennett’s team – which has five freshmen and two sophomores and just one senior in its 10-man rotation — has come up short seven times to teams ranked lower than the top 100. According to ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi, no team with that many bad losses went on to the NCAAs during the past 20 years. Only three teams with as many as four such defeats wound up going to the big dance.

So while the Terps would have to run the table in Greensboro like their 2004 underdog predecessors to get where they want to go, the Cavaliers had better keep a move on, too, or their victories over the guys from College Park on Feb. 10 and Mar. 10 will have been in vain.

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin


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