ROCK HILL, S.C. -- Just about now, much of the University of Maryland campus population is planning its annual educational pilgrimage to warmer climes, known popularly as spring break.
The women's basketball team is getting a trip south, too, though, instead of lying on the beach in Daytona or Jacksonville, Fla., the Terps will be here at the Winthrop Coliseum in the center of the Carolinas.
No, this isn't some weird punishment for bad play, but instead, the 15th annual women's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, shifted here after 10 years in Fayetteville, N.C.
Maryland, the tournament's second seed behind No. 1 Virginia, isn't quite the team it was a month ago, but the panic button hasn't exactly been struck, and for good reason.
After all, the Terps (23-4, 13-3) are the fourth-ranked team in the country, and should receive nothing less than a No. 2 seed in a region when the draw is announced next Sunday for the 48-team NCAA women's tournament, regardless of what happens this weekend.
"Maryland is one of the really good teams in the country," said Agnus Berenato, head coach of Georgia Tech, Maryland's opening round opponent tomorrow (1 p.m.)
"I'm a big advocate of Maryland. They're a team that could possibly take it all."
Maryland coach Chris Weller said earlier this week: "We're as ready as we've tried to be all year. We've got a lot of confidence."
"We think we're a pretty good team that can play anywhere. We're not a dominating team, we're not real smooth or as polished. But we play real hard and we have some pretty good talent."
This weekend, traditionally, has been Maryland's time to shine. In the 14-year history of the women's ACC tournament, the Terps have won eight championships in nine final-game appearances.
But Maryland comes into this year's tournament slightly off kilter. After winning 20 of their first 21 games, the Terps have lost three of their past six.
Point guard Limor Mizrachi, who had been the rock of stability early in the season, in particular, has fallen on slightly hard times down the stretch as defenses have begun key on her.
Though she is third in the conference in assists, Mizrachi, a native of Givatyim, Israel, has found herself the victim of aggressive defensive sets, designed to neutralize her three-point shooting.
As a result, Mizrachi has scored in double figures in just six of Maryland's past 10 games. She was held without a point in Maryland's 72-55 loss to Clemson three weeks ago and in last Saturday's regular season closer, a 66-47 victory at Wake Forest.
"I'd like to know what they [the other coaches] are drawing up," said Weller jokingly, when asked what opposing coaches are doing to neutralize Mizrachi.
"She's a little better known than before," Weller said. "We have great coaches in this conference and they're not going to allow a very fine player to do what she wants."
But on balance, the Terps do approach this weekend with their best chance to win since the 1988-89 season, the last time they won the tournament and their last appearance in the Final Four.
Junior center Jessie Hicks, who led the ACC in field goal percentage, and junior guard Malissa Boles were named first- and second-team all-ACC, respectively, in a vote of league coaches announced earlier this week.
And Walbrook's Dafne Lee, a senior forward, is playing the best basketball of her career over the past three weeks.
Seventh-seeded Georgia Tech (15-12, 6-10), the Terps' opening-round opponent, never has won a game in the tournament, failing in 12 straight opening-round games.
The Yellow Jackets never have finished higher than sixth in the league, though this year's six conference wins and their 15-12 overall mark were all-time bests.
Maryland won both games this season, 75-54 in College Park and 71-63 two weeks ago in Atlanta.
In both games, the Yellow Jackets were close until relatively late, before the more talented Maryland team pulled away at the end.
"We felt Maryland did us in at their place, but here [in Atlanta] we had one of our lapses, where we didn't score," Berenato said. "If we can avoid that Saturday, we think we have a chance."