COLLEGE PARK -- Once upon a time, Dick Tarrant's bunch of Richmond Spiders could crawl into the NCAA tournament and frighten away the big boys, in much the same fashion that the storied arachnid scared off Little Miss Muffet.
In 1984, here comes Auburn, there goes Auburn. In 1988, here come Indiana and Georgia Tech, and there they go.
But Tarrant fears that the days of fairy tale and nursery rhyme have come to an end, as his Spiders, the 15th seed in the East Region who meet second-seeded Syracuse tonight (9:50, Ch. 11) at Cole Field House, no longer can use the element of surprise.
"Once in a while, you can sneak up on somebody," said Tarrant. "But I don't know in 1991 that you can sneak up on anyone. The major upsets could be a thing of the past."
There's no question that if Richmond (21-9), the Colonial Athletic Association tournament champion, were to knock off Big East regular-season winner Syracuse (26-5), the effect would be momentous.
But if it happens, the Orangemen say it won't be because they were caught off guard.
"Richmond has proven themselves over and over again," said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. "I look at them as a solid program. I know I take them seriously and I know our players do, too.
"Nothing they could do would surprise anyone. They're a good team and they're going to play you tough."
Billy Owens, Syracuse's junior forward and first-team All-American selection, agreed with his coach. "Every team that makes it to the NCAA tournament is a good team and they're no exception," Owens said. "We'll be ready."
The Orangemen weren't ready in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament, where they were bounced by Villanova, and figure to be riled up for Richmond.
"We have a tendency to mess around and then try to get things done in the last few minutes of the game," said senior center LeRon Ellis. "If we can beat them by 30, then we'll beat them by 30. We'll try to."
Tarrant is concerned that Syracuse, which averages 6-7 1/2 across the front line, will cause him endless matchup problems.
"We match up horribly with them," said Tarrant, whose Spiders are 6-11, 6-5, 6-7 across the starting front line. "They're so big and so talented. We'll have a tough time matching them up front."
Not to mention what the Spiders will do with Owens, a 6-9 hybrid player who can dominate inside, pass adeptly and stroke outside jumpers for good measure.
"He is a magnificent player with no obvious weaknesses -- a sure-fire NBA pro," said Tarrant. "The more tapes I watched of him, the more nervous I got."
But the Spiders, who have won 12 of their last 13, can spin a little trouble for Syracuse as well.
Curtis Blair, a 6-3 sophomore from Roanoke, averaged 16.3 points and has racked up 997 points in just two seasons at Richmond.
Kenny Wood, a 6-5 sophomore forward from East Hampton, N.Y. has twice pulled down more than 15 rebounds in a game this year.
Tarrant has shifted Terry Connolly, a 6-5 senior forward from Frederick, who anchored two state championship teams at Thomas Johnson High, to a sixth-man role, and the results have been beneficial.
"I asked him early in the year to come off the bench and he's responded with great character," said Tarrant. "He's slow and heavy-legged, but he has the heart of a lion. Every team should have a Terry Connolly."
The unknown factor here is whether an NCAA investigation will weigh on the Orangemen and distract them enough to let the Spiders slip by.
"I don't think that it has made it that hard to focus," said Ellis, who before last season transferred to Syracuse from Kentucky, as that program was slapped with severe NCAA sanctions.
"I've been through it before. It's just a drop in the bucket to brush off. It's a poor excuse to say that the NCAA is affecting us. We just have to play."