SYRACUSE, N.Y. - You can hear the hunger in their voices and see it in their eyes. The Maryland Terrapins know they belong here, and they plan to move on to the final destination of a five-month journey. That would be Atlanta, the setting of the NCAA tournament's Final Four party next weekend.
Listen between the lines, and you hear a Maryland team that is aching to remind the nation tonight of how good it is. It's also a group that has grown a little tired of hearing about the history and mystique surrounding Kentucky, which the Terps must eliminate in tonight's East Regional semifinal at the Carrier Dome to stay on the road to its first national championship.
What better way for the top-seeded Terps (28-4), gunning for their school-record 29th win, to move on to their second straight Elite Eight game than by knocking off one of the true blue bloods of the sport?
The fourth-seeded Wildcats (22-9), who have battled injuries, suspensions, a player dismissal and other internal tension during an up-and-down season, have become a fashionable upset pick.
Led by forward Tayshaun Prince and guard Keith Bogans, their top two scorers, Kentucky is a hot team with a load of imposing numbers that define its program, starting with its seven national championships. Coach Tubby Smith brought the last crown to Lexington during his first season there in 1998.
Pardon the Terps for refusing to cringe in awe, or for feeling that this is their time.
"It's a storied program, no doubt about it. But it's our team against their team. It's not our past against their past," junior backup guard Drew Nicholas said. "We feel like this is going to be our game. We just want to come out and set the tempo and see if they can play our kind of basketball."
Added sophomore power forward Chris Wilcox: "Tradition is old. We're playing for this game and this game only. We'll see tomorrow who the better team is. I think we'll do well."
"People are so used to saying Duke, Carolina, Kentucky. You never hear Maryland in the same breath," said Terps coach Gary Williams, referring to some of the game's most treasured schools.
"I think with what we've done in the last few years, we deserve to be mentioned in the same breath. We've earned the right to know we're a good team without being cocky. If somebody beats us, they'll beat a good team."
Maryland, the only school in the nation to appear in nine straight NCAA tournaments, advance to six Sweet 16 rounds since 1994 and win at least 25 games in each of the past four seasons, knows it has enough weapons, savvy and experience to dispose of a legend tonight.
The Terps have won 15 of their past 16 games and destroyed eighth-seeded Wisconsin by 30 points to get here.
They have the tournament's leading scorer in senior guard Juan Dixon (58 points), who is the school's all-time scoring champion and is playing like a man desperate to finish his collegiate career by cutting down more nets.
They have a formidable four-man rotation down low, starting with Wilcox and senior center Lonny Baxter. Their point guard, junior Steve Blake, has started 101 games and is enjoying his best season.
Maryland also has a defense that has wavered at times, but usually has done more than enough to put games away with authority. Tonight, they must contain the two-headed monster of the 6-foot-9 Prince and 6-5 Bogans.
Prince is coming off a career-high 41-point effort, is a threat to drive to the basket, rebound and hit outside shots. Bogans, who has battled some terrible shooting slumps, has played two strong games in a row and is averaging 20 points in the tournament. Look for Wilcox to check Prince, with some help from Tahj Holden and maybe Byron Mouton. Look for Dixon, with some Mouton assistance, to tackle Bogans.
"Maryland is a great team. I think we are going to have to take away more than one guy," Bogans said. "We are going to have to work as a team to take a lot of things away from them."
"It's a good accomplishment for us to make a huge turnaround at this point in this season," added Prince, addressing a seesaw ride during which Kentucky lost late regular-season games to Tennessee and Vanderbilt and got whipped by South Carolina in the first round of the SEC tournament, before regaining its footing.
"We had some ups and downs throughout the course of the season, on and off the court, but we turned it around at the right time. When you are playing those top teams you have to be focused and determined. If you don't bring your A game, you can be embarrassed."
The signs are pointing to another Maryland victory. The Wildcats, who probably need an exceptional shooting night to pull off the upset, have struggled on many nights to shoot 40 percent. Kentucky can match the Terps in height, but Maryland is a thicker, more physical team inside, while the Wildcats have not rebounded consistently.
The Terps, who have lost once in the past two months, are more balanced, present an array of scoring threats and are the more seasoned group. And unlike Kentucky, which had an emotional celebration after slipping by 12th-seeded Tulsa by five points in its second-round win last week - this, with Prince scoring 41 - Maryland pretty much yawned and checked its watches after blowing out Wisconsin.
"We're very good. When we play defense, we win by big margins," Dixon said. "We've experienced a lot and accomplished a lot in the last three years. I think this is our time."
Said Holden: "A lot of teams don't expect to be here. They hope to be here. We fully expect to play in the Sweet 16, and we don't want to stop here. I feel we're one of the best teams in the country, and we're playing really good basketball right now.
"Kentucky has a really rich tradition, but we have a rich tradition at Maryland. We obviously haven't won a national championship yet, but that's upcoming."