COLLEGE PARK -- Ever since they blew a 22-point lead and suffered a painful loss to Duke in last year's Final Four, the Maryland Terrapins have been craving the chance to make another run at the NCAA men's basketball championship.
The new season officially has arrived, and the Terps have never been in such a favorable position from which to quench their thirst.
For the first time in school history, Maryland is a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and the Terps don't even have to board an airplane to begin their journey.
As the top seed in the East Regional, where it will compete for the first time since 1980, second-ranked Maryland will open its ninth consecutive NCAA tournament trip at MCI Center in Washington early Friday afternoon against the winner of tomorrow's Siena-Alcorn State play-in game. In the history of the national tournament, a top seed has never lost to a No. 16 seed.
The Terps intend to advance to the Sweet 16 in Syracuse, N.Y., then move on to a return trip to the Final Four in Atlanta, which plays host to the national title game on April 1.
"I think we're ready to make a run at a national championship. That's our goal. We know what it takes to get back there," Terps senior guard Juan Dixon said. "I think we have a good shot at doing it. Now we have to take it one game at a time and have fun doing it."
"We talked about it coming back from the Final Four last year," junior forward Tahj Holden said. "We wanted to get back to the national championship game and win the national championship. We are not going to be happy just with getting there."
The Terps are thrilled with the scenario that awaits them. For starters, they will remain on the East Coast as long as they survive over the next three weekends.
Unlike a year ago, when they spent a continuous two weeks in Idaho and Southern California before winning the West Region, Maryland will take a 20-minute bus ride to play in a familiar setting in the tournament's opening weekend. Maryland has played at the MCI Center for five straight seasons in the BB&T Classic.
"I'm very excited. We're the first No. 1 seed in school history, and it's a big advantage to play right down the street," said senior center Lonny Baxter, who is from Rockville and played high school ball in Washington. "We've done some great things this year. And after what happened this weekend, we just want to get back out on the court."
That would be a rare Maryland stumble during what has been a magical ride. The Terps earned their top seed because they won their first regular-season Atlantic Coast Conference title in 22 years and finished with a 25-3 regular-season record, including a 15-1 mark against the league. Each record is the best in school history.
But on Saturday, the Terps saw their 13-game winning streak disappear against North Carolina State, which upset Maryland, 86-82. That halted the Terps' quest to win their first ACC tournament since 1984 and kept Maryland from advancing to only its second ACC final since then.
But the loss wasn't enough to change the NCAA tournament selection committee's view of the Terps, who have been ranked either No. 2 or No. 3 for nine consecutive weeks. Maryland also went 15-0 at home, and has a 7-4 record against the NCAA tournament field.
"I think what the committee was saying was what we did during the regular season was more important than what happened in one weekend. We didn't play well for two days, but for 2 1/2 months, we played very well," Maryland coach Gary Williams said.
"We've been through everything this year. I like this feeling, especially after losing in the ACC tournament. This gives us a great feeling again. Right now, our whole focus is to do as well as we can in the NCAA tournament. Then, you step back and look at what you did."
Once they beat then-top-ranked Duke on Feb. 17, then ran the table against the rest of the ACC to complete their regular season, it was a foregone conclusion that the Terps would be one of the NCAA's four top seeds. The only question was whether Maryland would go East or South. Duke pretty much wrapped up that question by winning its fourth straight ACC tournament to earn the top seed in the South.
The NCAA had announced that it would try to send as many higher seeds as possible to close-to-home sites for the first weekend, regardless of where they would compete in regional play. The idea was to cut down on the travel that kept fans and family members from following their respective teams. Last year, for example, Maryland, Georgetown, George Mason and Hampton all were shipped to Boise for the opening weekend.
That made MCI Center a natural and deserving fit for the Terps.
"We've earned it. I hope the fans can help us," Williams said.
Junior point guard Steve Blake, who was the best player in a Maryland uniform in Charlotte this weekend, is eager to get on with the rest of the postseason after the Terps' subpar play.