It's already must-win time for Maryland.

Usually, the Terps face the ultimatum in mid-February with a handful of games remaining. And the Terps usually respond.

But Maryland desperately needs to beat Wake Forest on Wednesday or its NCAA tournament hopes will already be questionable despite two months remaining.

How did this happen?

Williams was "pleased that we could compete" in the 71-64 loss at No. 1 Duke on Sunday. In truth, Maryland would have won if the Terps didn't either miss the rim entirely or repeatedly splat the ball off the backboard during the second half. Williams speaking positively of a loss is rare and a little scary. The Terps coach doesn't have participation awards; he's into national championships like the 2002 trophy on the Comcast Center mezzanine.

The Terps are 10-5 overall without a signature win. Maryland competed well in losses to Pittsburgh, Illinois, Temple and Duke, but the NCAA tournament committee doesn't consider close calls. They count big wins and Maryland has none. Aside from ACC games, Maryland's last chance for an impressive victory is against Villanova on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Maryland is 0-2 in conference play. That's not catastrophic, but Wake Forest (7-9 overall, 0-1 ACC) is the conference's worst team. If Maryland can't win this game, it's heading to the NIT.

"We have to win games," Williams said via conference call Monday. "Getting close, that's not what you're about this time of year. You have to win games."

Fortunately, Williams does his best work when he's cornered. Usually it's a month from now, but the Terps coach is one of the game's best because his demanding practices have rosters peaking late in the season.

Maryland has one of the nation's better big men in Jordan Williams (18 points, 11.9 rebounds). But opponents eventually concentrate on him enough to force other Terps to win games.

That's where Maryland is failing. No one expected the Terps to replace departed ACC player of the year Greivis Vasquez or sidekick Eric Hayes, but Cliff Tucker (11.5 ppg) is the only veteran who has improved this season. Sean Moseley (8.5 ppg) has not become the expected scoring machine out of Baltimore.

The Terps are best when they play with a smaller lineup. They have enough players to rotate effectively. The guards also play vicious defense with a quickness that nearly upset Duke.

But it's still a big man's game and Maryland has no one to combine with Jordan Williams, much less spell him. Dino Gregory (7.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg) needs to be the latest of Gary Williams' disciples to blossom in February.

Unfortunately, the Terps resemble the 2005-06 teams that finished 19-13 and settled for an NIT bid. But there's still time for Williams to work his magic. It just needs to start earlier than usual.

Examiner columnist Rick Snider has covered local sports since 1978. Read more at and on Twitter @Snide_Remarks or e-mail