CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- They have played on the periphery of the Atlantic Coast Conference spotlight for most of the season, afterthoughts to the glamour teams like Duke and North Carolina, in the shadow of nearly everyone else.
Tonight, Maryland and Clemson will be the only ACC game in this basketball-crazy town. The eighth-seeded Terrapins and ninth-seeded Tigers will share center court at the Charlotte Coliseum, opening the 39th ACC tournament with its inaugural preliminary game.
"It's a big deal to us," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, whose Terps will mark their return to the tournament after a one-year absence, forced by their NCAA probation.
Said Clemson coach Cliff Ellis, "I think it's going to be a hell of a game."
Whether anybody will be there to watch the 7 p.m. game is another matter. Although an ACC spokesman said yesterday that only about 600 tickets of the allotted 22,000 have been returned, it seems doubtful that more than a few thousand of the most ardent Maryland and Clemson fans will show up.
Asked who he expected to see in the stands, Williams said, "I think there'll be a lot of mothers and fathers and girlfriends of the players."
Regardless of the crowd, both teams seem to have their own reasons why they should be ready for this game. For the Terps, it's an opportunity to make up for sitting out last year's tournament. For the Tigers, it's a chance to put themselves in position for a possible postseason (read NIT) bid.
And, for both, it's a chance to get another shot at Duke. And both teams are itching to play the Blue Devils.
Crazy, you say? Consider this: On Feb. 20, the Terps came closer than anybody has in the past three years to defeat the top-ranked Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Playing the last seven minutes without Walt Williams, Maryland actually led Duke -- playing without Bobby Hurley -- by a point with 38 seconds left, before winding up on the wrong end of a 91-89 decision.
The Tigers nearly staged an upset of their own a couple of weeks later in Clemson. Having lost to the Blue Devils by 39 points in January, Clemson built a 19-point lead on Duke at Littlejohn Coliseum as both Christian Laettner and Brian Davis got into foul trouble. With Hurley back, but Grant Hill out with an injury, the Blue Devils came back to win, 98-97.
"I think we would like to play the No. 1 team in the country again," said Maryland forward Evers Burns, the junior from Baltimore.
Whoever wins, it's going to take a Herculean effort (or is it Hurleyan effort?) to come back in a little more than 18 hours and play the No. 1 team in the country. As Ellis said, "No matter who you'd be playing makes it tough, the fact that it's Duke makes it that much tougher."
One factor that shouldn't be overlooked for tonight's game is experience in the ACC tournament. Though it might feel more like the preliminary game in the Red Lobster Classic, there will be plenty of banners here to remind these two young teams where they are. The edge in this case could go to Maryland, but not by much.
In fact, there isn't a whole lot separating these two teams. The Terps won one more game in the ACC, the Tigers won one more game overall. Aside from those excruciating defeats to Duke, both teams beat second seed Florida State once. They split their regular-season games, with each team winning at home.
About the biggest difference is the way the teams played down the stretch. Maryland won three straight before dropping a 74-72 decision to Virginia last Saturday. Clemson lost its last four games, and was drilled 101-82 at Georgia Tech Sunday.
"We know we can play much better than we did the last time we played them," said Maryland guard Kevin McLinton.
"We want to get a shot at anybody," said Walt Williams, who needs 31 points to break Len Bias' single-season scoring record. "We lost a lot of close games for a variety of reasons, but they gave us a real shellacking at their place."