COLLEGE PARK -- They're going to Disney World.
Actually, their fans might have time to pose with Mickey and Minnie, or visit Epcot Center, but Maryland has work to do this week in Orlando, Fla. The Terps will be the top draw at that South Region site, but they'll head to the NCAA tournament with mixed emotions.
Maryland is the No. 2 seed, but the Terps kicked themselves for wasting a chance to gain the program's first No. 1. Their upset loss to North Carolina in the semifinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament was made all the more painful because Auburn and Stanford, the competition for the fourth and final top seed, also lost Saturday.
Auburn, with two losses in its last four games, grabbed the final No. 1 seed. It is the South headliner, and its opening game in Indianapolis will be Winthrop, which is making its first tournament appearance. Maryland settled for No. 2, and its Thursday opener is against No. 15 Valparaiso, the Cinderella last year, when it got as far as the Terps.
"If we would have won [against North Carolina], we would have gotten a No. 1 seed," coach Gary Williams said. "We had our chance. You can't say we didn't get a break. We had to do a certain thing to do it, and we didn't do it. I'd like to go in as a No. 1, but we're glad to be a No. 2."
When Maryland's draw was announced on CBS' selection show, no cheers came from the team's lounge at Cole Field House. The Terps (26-5) made the school's firstberth in the Final Four their stated goal last summer, and they don't want a distinguished season to be lost in the glare of top-ranked Duke, the favorite to win the championship game March 29 in St. Petersburg, Fla.
"The North Carolina loss was something that hurt everyone," said guard Steve Francis, who was named yesterday to the ACC all-tournament team. "It definitely hurt our coach. Now, we control our own destiny. We're a team that everyone is coming after, and we have to know that if we lose now, it's all over."
The draw has the Terps set up for a second-round date Saturday against seventh-seeded Louisville, which wasn't even made eligible to play in the tournament until early February, or Creighton. At the Sweet 16 in Knoxville, Tenn., they could face St. John's or Indiana before an Elite Eight showdown against Auburn, but it's foolish to look past the first round.
Valpo rhymes with Alpo, but there's no dog in the premier team in the Mid-Continent Conference. This is the fourth straight NCAA appearance for coach Homer Drew but the first without son Bryce. His buzzer-beater shocked fourth-seeded Mississippi in the first round last year, and the Crusaders went on to beat Florida State in the second round.
Valparaiso, located in the Indiana town of the same name, sent the coach's son to the Houston Rockets and brought in nine new players. An RPI of 135 is the program's lowest since at least 1993.
"We're kind of disappointed to get a No. 15 seed," the coach said. "We hoped to get a little higher, a 13 or 14. I can only assume our RPI ratings were down this season because several teams in our conference were in their first year in Division I.
"We really don't have a player who has taken over for Bryce or any of the seniors from last year. We have nine players, a very well-balanced team."
Valparaiso (23-8) opened with wins over South Carolina and Seton Hall. It lost three straight in early February to Oral Roberts, Western Illinois and Youngstown State, but it goes south with a six-game winning streak and a hulking front line of 6-foot-7 Lubos Barton, 6-10 Ivan Vujic and 6-11 Zoran Viskovic that Maryland must get by.
"They're big, and they've got an international flavor," Williams said of a team with several Croatians. "We just played a team that big [North Carolina]. Our players definitely know who Valparaiso is. The shot Bryce hit last year was the most-run highlight of the tournament."
The Orlando site has several compelling story lines.
Freshman guard Juan Dixon (Calvert Hall) is excited about a reunion with fellow Baltimoreans, such as George Washington's Shawnta Rogers (Lake Clifton) and Mike King (Lake Clifton), and St. John's Bootsy Thornton (Dunbar). Mike Jarvis, the St. John's coach, recruited the GW roster. He could meet his old team, if he gets past Indiana and its bubbly coach, Bob Knight.
Above them all, at least on paper, is Maryland, one of only 10 teams to make the tournament for the sixth straight year. The Terps set a record for regular-season wins, their pressure defense is a force that will unsettle most teams, and in Francis, it has one of the nation's most electrifying players.
"All I know," senior forward Laron Profit said, "is that we've come a long way from my freshman year, when we were just praying to get in."
Team: Valparaiso (23-8)
Seed: No. 15, South
Site: Orlando (Fla.) Arena
Day: Thursday, time TBA
Line: Maryland by 19
On the Internet
For more information about the NCAA basketball tournament brackets, go to The Sun's Web site SunSpot at www.sunspot.net
Pub Date: 3/08/99