Friday, January 12, 2007

No More Fear of the Turtle

As I've pondered the results of the last few poor seasons by Maryland's basketball team it dawned on me that one of the major changes from seasons past to today didn't even have anything to do with the Terrapins themselves but with their opponents. Teams don't have any fear of Maryland anymore. If you watched the Miami players joking on the sideline towards the end of the game on Wednesday you'd get a sense of it. They were not leading by double digits and the game was still very much in doubt yet the Hurricane players seemed fairly sure they were going to win. It wasn't in just the last 30 seconds either, there were minutes left in the game. That kind of confidence would have never been evident in a Maryland opponent before 2003. Part of that respect was based on Maryland's great teams of the late 90's and early 2000's who beat plenty of very good teams regularly. There was another aspect to that fear besides just being a good team. It was that teams felt they would have to play their best to have even a chance of pulling out a victory over Maryland. Now teams like Miami, Clemson, Virginia Tech, Florida State and the other football schools feel like they expect to compete and even win against the Terps. Gary Williams mentioned this trend on his radio show, saying that Maryland had given Clemson some confidence that they could beat Maryland.

I believe that Clemson expects to beat Maryland now. It doesn't hurt that after each of the last four losses to Clemson the Maryland players talked about how they were better than the Tigers. That seems more like a delusion when you're riding the crest of a four game losing streak to a team. Just like Maryland got some confidence they could play with Duke in the early part of the decade the current Maryland teams go into games with the Blue Devils feeling like they expect to win. When you've seen so many good teams go into Cameron waiting for things to go wrong and inevitably losing, even though they should have been competitive, you understand the value of that fear. A nervous and jittery opponent won't play as tough as one with some self-assurance and even on days when Coach K's bunch are not playing well that was often just enough of an edge to pull out a victory.

Maryland has lost that sense of dread for opponents, perhaps for the foreseeable future. The awe of playing in a new conference against storied programs for teams like Virginia Tech and Miami has worn off rather quickly. Those players recognize that the Terrapins of the last few years are rather ordinary. The only way you can get that back it by beating those teams, time after time. That kind of respect is hard to earn yet easy to squander for programs like Maryland. There have been many failures of the recent Maryland squads but this particular aspect may continue to haunt the Terps even when they have better teams in future seasons.

Maryland still has some cache from its historical and recent success, which is why it is viewed as a good win by some of these lower programs, but it has lost the shine that it had a short time ago. When Manhattan can come into College Park and become the second non-ACC team to win in Gary Williams' tenure you know something has changed. Clemson had not won at Maryland since 1997 before the 2005 loss and had not won at all in 13 games before the 2002 recruiting class came to Comcast. The four recent losses to Clemson probably kept Maryland out of the last two NCAA tournaments. History could be made today if Clemson wins. It would be the first time that Clemson had ever beaten Maryland five straight times and the first time that the Tigers had a road winning streak in the series, with two straight. After today we'll have more clues to decide if the future is going to be anything like the past, recent or fading, for the Terrapins.

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