COLLEGE PARK -- The most eagerly anticipated University of Maryland basketball season since Gary Williams returned to his alma mater begins tonight at 8 when the Terrapins play host to UMBC at Cole Field House.
Freed from the shackles of its three-year NCAA sanctions, and buoyed by its best freshmen class in more than two decades, Maryland will be, as the team's slogan suggests, "off and running" on what promises to be an interesting journey.
Williams can't wait for his fourth season to begin. Neither can his players.
"I think there's an excitement because the sanctions are over, and we're like everybody else," Williams said yesterday. "That doesn't make me work any harder. The difference is that if we get good enough, we can play in the postseason."
Said Evers Burns, a senior forward and co-captain from Woodlawn: "We have more to gain. It's a bigger goal. We have something to play for. That's the main focus, to get as many wins as possible and play in the NCAA tournament."
The Terps haven't played a postseason game outside the ACC tournament since getting to the second round of the National Invitation Tournament in Williams' first year. Maryland hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 1988, when it lost to Kentucky in the second round.
But March Madness is a long way off, and the Terps are still getting accustomed to each other. Two of the freshmen will start, and all five probably will get to play. This is the youngest team Williams has had in 15 seasons as a Division I coach.
"We've got a lot to prove," said Williams. "I can't say how good we are. Usually, I have an idea, but this year there are four freshmen heavily involved in our rotation. All of a sudden, you might see four freshmen on the court."
As expected, Williams will be going with a starting lineup that includes freshmen Johnny Rhodes and Exree Hipp. Rhodes will start in the backcourt alongside senior Kevin McLinton, and Hipp will be in the frontcourt with Burns and senior center Chris Kerwin.
But unlike his first three years, when he had little or no depth, Williams will have the luxury of regularly using three or four players off the bench. Freshmen Duane Simpkins and Nemanja Petrovic, as well as sophomores John Walsh and Wayne Bristol, are expected to be part of the regular rotation. Another freshman, Mario Lucas, could work his way in.
"I've always been the kind of coach who stays with a set lineup," Williams said last week. "But I think you'll see more combinations than we've been able to do here the past few years."
One combination will be the lineup Maryland went with down the stretch in its last exhibition game against Verich Reps. It included Simpkins at point guard and McLinton, one of the best rebounding guards in the country, at small forward, with Rhodes, Burns and Kerwin.
Regardless of which lineup the Terps have on the floor tonight, it is bound to present problems for UMBC. Though the Retrievers boast their most experienced team since Earl Hawkins took over four years ago, they are still not in Maryland's class.
"What I like about UMBC from their standpoint is that they have four guys who have played a lot before," said Williams. "That's their edge. We have the edge in that we're playing at home."
The experience Hawkins has will enable him to bring his highly touted freshman along a little more slowly. Felton Scott, a 6-foot-4 swingman from Homestead, Fla., will be brought off the bench for the time being.
"Freshmen have to get their feet wet," said Hawkins, whose team will be looking for its first winning season since 1988-89. It is a new member of the Big South Conference. "I don't want to put too much pressure on him."
Asked how the seemingly impossible task of upsetting the Terps could be accomplished, Hawkins said: "Pressure will determine the outcome. If we can handle their pressure, we can play in a half-court game with them. But they are big. They are deep. They are quick."
Hawkins was at both Maryland preseason games scouting the Terps. He came away impressed by their work ethic and by the talents of Rhodes, who scored 30 points in a 96-85 win over pTC Verich Reps.
"I think he's a tremendous player," said Hawkins. "I didn't know he could shoot it as well as he can. He's got great range and great size for a guard."
Williams has been pleased by the way the freshmen have responded to the expectations. Rhodes was a runaway preseason choice for Freshman of the Year in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"There's not been one time when I've yelled at them for not working hard," said Williams. "They've done a great job of not taking their preseason clippings with them to practice."
Tonight, Maryland will try to start rewriting its recent history.
So, too, will UMBC.
AP top 25
The top 25 teams in The Associated Press poll, with first-place votes in parentheses, records through Sunday, total points (based on 25 points for a first-place vote through one point for a 25th-place vote) and ranking in last week's poll:
No. School ......... Record ... Pts ... Pvs