Commentary

Terps, ND and others back in NCAA mix

Originally Published: February 21, 2009
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

If anyone thought Gary Williams was done coaching, in terms of his career or even his current Maryland team, then you don't know Williams.

[+] EnlargeGary Williams
AP Photo/Rob CarrA win over No. 3 North Carolina has Gary Williams and the Terps thinking postseason.

If anyone thought Notre Dame had no shot for the NCAA tournament after a seven-game losing streak, then you're not well-versed on this season.

If anyone thought Washington State had no shot at the postseason, let alone a chance to win the Pac-10 tournament, then you haven't been following the West's highest-profile conference.

If anyone thought teams like Miami in the ACC or even Georgetown in the Big East were done, then you need to look at the schedules.

Just when it was safe to assume a team in a high-major conference was out of contention for an NCAA berth, an opportunity arises to grab the selection committee's attention and shake them back into re-thinking about a particular team.

Miami did that Saturday with a win over Boston College. Georgetown didn't with a loss to Marquette, but Louisville looms Monday night for the Hoyas (14-11, 5-9 in Big East with wins over UConn and Memphis) with yet another chance to show the committee they are worthy of consideration for a bid.

No one did that more on Saturday than Maryland. Left for dead because of the margins of defeat this season to teams like Georgetown (by 27 in November), Duke (by 41 last month) and Clemson (by 29 just last Tuesday), the Terps are alive again. For now.

The thrilling 88-85 overtime win against No. 3 North Carolina -- behind Greivis Vasquez' triple-double of 35 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists -- was a classic Williams game.

"I told our team, that we aren't going to change our style of play, we won't quit and we'll keep pressing," Williams said Saturday by phone from College Park. "That Clemson game goes from six to 26 points but this is how we're going to play. I never wanted our players to think we were backing off. The margins never affected us. What difference does it make if you lose by 15 or 30? Does the score look better on ESPN? Who cares? I'm past that."

Maryland has taken out No. 1 teams before, and beating North Carolina isn't uncommon. But the Terps hadn't posted a signature win since beating Michigan State in the first round of the Old Spice Classic in Orlando back in November.

Maryland (17-9, 6-6 ACC) faced a daunting schedule with a road game at Clemson, followed by consecutive home games against North Carolina and Duke this Wednesday. Wake Forest is the last home game on March 3, wedged between road games at NC State and Virginia.

[+] EnlargeGreivis Vasquez
AP Photo/Rob CarrGreivis Vasquez recorded a triple-double in the upset win over the Tar Heels.

"I knew if we could win this game, it could get us in position," Williams said. "We talked about how tough our schedule was at the end of the year but the good thing is that if you don't have those games then you won't have a chance to elevate your position. If you're .500 in our league and don't go to the NCAA tournament then something is wrong."

Maryland has blown double-digit leads at Miami and at home to Boston College. But the Terps do have ACC wins over fellow bubble teams Miami and Virginia Tech at home.

Throughout the season Williams, who has three years left on a $6 million contract, has had to dodge questions about his job status and read about how and why his recruiting has suffered since the 2002 national championship. All it has done is made Williams dig in even more to get this team to the NCAA tournament after missing the dance three of the past four seasons.

"It would mean a lot [to get a bid]," Williams said. "A lot of people wrote us off. We live in a critical area, in the nation's capital. This is a pro area and it's open season on every college and pro team. But this team has done a great job of not listening to outside influences, come to practice ready for the game. We know we're good enough to win. Our margin of error isn't great, we have to do things right. But we've accepted that."

Notre Dame had to tune out the talk that the Irish had no chance either. Irish coach Mike Brey knew the negativity was permeating the team. How could it not with a seven-game losing streak in the middle of the Big East season? Even when the Irish pounded Louisville by 33 to end the losing skid, and after a 10-point win over South Florida, there were still doubts. Losing at West Virginia by 11 made the bad psyche return.

That's when Brey stopped cold the questionable thoughts in the postgame locker room.

"I just told them that if you're 9-9 we've got an amazingly strong case and even 8-10," Brey said Saturday night. "I kept explaining it to them and told them that it [started Saturday at Providence]. Kyle McAlarney and Zach Hillesland said they had to hear it because they were hearing so much negative stuff from people on TV."

Brey reiterated how the Irish could make it interesting if they could win at Providence. The Irish did just that with a 103-84 victory to move to 6-8 in the Big East, 15-11 overall. Take Notre Dame's name off the resume and just look at a neutral win over Texas in November and a home win over Louisville and at least it has your attention. Winning the three final home games -- Rutgers, Villanova and St. John's -- and losing the one road game at Connecticut would put the Irish at 9-9 in the Big East.

[+] EnlargeMike Brey
AP Photo/Stew MilneMike Brey says it's too early to count the Irish out of the NCAA mix.

"We continue to make it interesting," Brey said. "It's going to be a photo finish and we want to be in it. We got through an amazingly tough stretch and all we strive to do now is be in the discussion."

Brey kept hammering that home late Saturday to his players that the Irish were fully engaged in the NCAA tournament discussion if they can hold serve at home.

"We can make this interesting, but it had to start [with a win at Providence]," Brey said. "It could be a wild finish."

Notre Dame and Wisconsin, which lost six straight at one point, both could be in the NCAA tournament in three weeks. That's how bizarre this season has been to this point.

"It's funny how everyone comes out and says these teams are locks and yet in five hours on a Saturday you can erase it all and start over," Brey said. "Two weeks ago we were dead in the water with I'm not sure how much dirt being thrown on us. But teams like us, Maryland and Washington State, can win and suddenly not everything is locked up."

Brey said the Big East schedule made him have hope, knowing that like Maryland in the ACC, there would be opportunity games to raise the Irish's profile. So far they've done that with a home win over Louisville and a road win at Providence. Playing Connecticut, even on the road, and Villanova at home, are two more chances to impress.

"I always knew we could jump back into the discussion," Brey said. "I told our guys we just need to beat Rutgers and get to seven league wins and then we can talk about what's going on in the [college basketball] world."

Williams has leaned on Vasquez, a junior who can have huge emotional and game-changing swings, to pull the Terps out of their abyss. Brey leaned on older players, too, but those who were less inclined to dip.

"We couldn't do what we did without mature kids," Brey said. "I always felt that with the quality of kids we have we could make it interesting."

Washington State made life a bit more intriguing for itself and its bitter rival Washington by beating UCLA 82-81 Saturday at Pauley Pavilion for only the second-ever win by the Cougars in Westwood. Head coach Tony Bennett was an assistant to his father, Dick, the last time the Cougars pulled this off. Senior guard Taylor Rochestie, who had been erratic of late in going 2 of 11 for just five points in a home loss to Oregon State last weekend, ripped off 33 points against the Bruins.

[+] EnlargeWashington State
AP Photo/Branimir KvartucWashington State won at UCLA for just the second time in school history.

Being within a possession of winning is the Cougars' mantra this season. Wazzu lost to UCLA and USC by two at home earlier in the season, beat Stanford by one, lost to the Beavers by two and now beat the Bruins by one to go to 14-13 overall, 6-9 in the Pac-10.

"This just shows that everyone is capable this year," Bennett said Saturday by phone as he prepared to fly back to Pullman. "College basketball isn't as good as it was last year [in terms of dominant teams]. So, you can get hot and get it going. This was a big win for us."

The Cougars did allow 81 points, but the Bruins allowed 82, proving to Bennett that defense wasn't a premium for two teams that usually bank on that end of the court to win the game.

Washington State can't get an at-large berth. But the Cougars now believe they have as much a shot as anyone to win the Pac-10 tournament in Los Angeles. Washington State finishes with a homestand against Arizona and Arizona State and then a road game at Washington. The Huskies (11-4 in Pac-10), by virtue of their win at USC and Cal's loss at Oregon State, opened up a one-game lead in the loss column over the Bruins (9-5) and Bears (9-5). Arizona State (9-4) is tied with the Huskies in the loss column heading into Sunday night's game against rival Arizona (8-5). Arizona State is at Washington next Thursday.

"We were fighting for our lives and now we've got a big win, with senior weekend upcoming against the Arizona schools," Bennett said. "Nobody has been dominant in our league to walk away with it. So you can't call this one yet."

Miami's season is hardly over, either. The Hurricanes missed out on two statement chances, blowing a double-digit lead at Duke before losing in overtime and then falling to North Carolina by four at home last week. Getting run out of Tallahassee by 13 to Florida State didn't help the cause, either. Miami (16-10) had to beat BC on Saturday to set up its final three games -- at Virginia, at Georgia Tech and home against NC State -- for a potential 8-8 finish in the ACC.

The Canes have a bankable win at Kentucky, a home ACC win over Wake Forest, a split with Florida State and a season-sweep of BC. Miami doesn't have a bad loss, with the two nonconference defeats to Connecticut in the Virgin Islands and to Ohio State at home.

"We just needed to taste winning again and I knew we'd be fine," said Miami coach Frank Haith by phone after the Canes' 69-58 win over BC. "We just kept making plays. I feel really good about our situation if we keep winning."

Haith said he never believed the Canes were out of the chase.

Sure there were other results Saturday that would make you pause about a particular team's chances of an at-large berth -- like Davidson with Stephen Curry losing to Butler at home, Baylor losing to Oklahoma State to drop to 4-8 in the Big 12 or San Diego State falling at New Mexico to drop into a tie for third in the Mountain West at 8-4.

But with three weeks left in the regular season for most high major conferences and conference tournaments that appear wide open it's still too early to fret just yet.

"I think you're going to see more and more cases of teams playing desperate like us, and Maryland and Washington State," Brey said. "And these teams can put it in a different gear at times. When a team thinks it has something locked up, they can tend to cruise along. That's human nature."

The way this season is going, it's hard for anyone to feel too secure. And that may be the perfect recipe for a magnetic month of March.

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com