Terps prove it's too early for UNC's ticket to the Final Four

Maryland coach Gary Williams has a cautionary warning for us all: Don't anoint Final Four teams in January.

Williams was a firm believer in this theory even before Saturday. But after the seven-loss Terps shocked top-ranked North Carolina, 82-80 in Chapel Hill, the ever-optimistic, and passionate, might may not have to convince anyone anymore.

Carolina wasn't the only projected Final Four team to go down Saturday.

Fourth-ranked UCLA lost, 72-63 at home to USC, the second time the Bruins have fallen at Pauley Pavilion this season.

If we want to go deeper into potential Final Four teams, No. 9 Texas A&M got drilled for the second time on the road this week, losing 75-54 at Kansas State after losing by 15 at Texas Tech on Wednesday.

"I think it's too early to make judgments about who are Final Four teams," Williams said late Saturday night by phone. "It gets earlier every year. We've got to give things a chance to fill out."

Williams said there are a lot of teams capable of winning a game against a perceived Final Four team, "maybe not every night, but on a given night. There a lot of teams out there that can't do it as a steady diet, but on one night they can play well, execute well and anything can happen."

And that's why the NCAA Tournament is the greatest postseason event in sports. It is a single-elimination tournament, not a series, so plenty of upsets occur.

"That's why I'm for expansion for the NCAA Tournament, there are too many teams that are good enough," Williams said of teams possibly winning a game. "That's the great thing about college basketball. There's certainly a lot of good teams out there, and we're one of those teams."

Although it's true that Kansas and Memphis both won Saturday to remain undefeated (the Jayhawks won at Missouri; the Tigers beat Southern Miss), both those teams have had their close calls, too. Kansas had to go to overtime to beat Arizona at home, and Memphis had to go to overtime to defeat USC in New York City.

Earlier this month, North Carolina beat Clemson in overtime on a last-possession 3-pointer by Wayne Ellington, then the Tar Heels survived a flurry of shots by Georgia Tech in the waning seconds to pull off a win in Atlanta on Wednesday.

But seriously, how could anyone have predicted that Maryland was the team that would knock off Carolina, especially at Carolina.

The Terps lost by 14 to Missouri in Kansas City, Mo.; by nine to VCU in Washington, D.C.; by six at home to Ohio; and by eight at home to American; plus, they got nipped by one at Virginia Tech.

"Your players have to believe they can win, and somehow in practice, we got that through to them," Williams said. "We got them to believe that they're good enough even though they hadn't shown it yet."

Williams said he didn't focus on Carolina's near misses against Georgia Tech or Clemson in the past week of preparation. He simply told his players that they had to play better defense than the Tar Heels and that they couldn't score 98 points -- Carolina's average at home -- and beat UNC. He said they couldn't take bad shots or be careless with the basketball.

And, of course, they had to be healthy. That meant getting guard Eric Hayes, who had missed the previous three games with a sprained ankle, back in the lineup. Hayes played 13 minutes against the Tar Heels, which certainly helped Greivis Vasquez at the point. And it helped that the Terps got the inside scoring that had been consistently missing from James Gist (22 points) and Bambale Osby (12 points), who made the winning layup with 20 seconds left.

"We made up our minds that despite Tyler Hansbrough, we were going to go inside," Williams said. "Osby is a workmanlike player, and the last move he made to score says it all about him. It wasn't pretty, but he made it happen going against a great player.

"The things I like about [us] is that we didn't quit, we stayed and tried to get better, and it worked."

What has to happen now for Maryland is to make sure this win matters. The Terps (12-7 overall, 2-2 ACC) host Duke on Jan. 27.

Maryland might be akin to Cincinnati in its NCAA chances -- a team that struggled mightily in the nonconference but has stood up in conference with significant wins that will make it a player over the next two months. The Bearcats, much like the Terps, were forgotten before January, but they have taken out Louisville on the road and Villanova, Syracuse and Pitt at home to move to a surprising 4-2 in the Big East (9-9 overall).

The Terps and Bearcats have more of a hill to climb than USC (11-6, 2-3 Pac-10) or Kansas State (12-4, 2-0 Big 12) to make the Dance because of what the latter two did in the nonconference (USC played a brutal schedule and beat Oklahoma at home; the Wildcats played a difficult slate as well, with their best nonconference win coming over possible bubble team Cal).

"Hey, it's still the middle of January, there's a lot of work to do [for everyone]," Williams said. "We're a lot better than a lot of teams, but we have to work every night, and hopefully the players got that message now."

Williams has been to multiple Final Fours and won the national title in 2002. Beating top-ranked Carolina isn't the best win he's ever had. But, it is one of the better regular-season wins he's had.

"It's right up there, given the situation," he said. "We've struggled earlier this year."

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.