Terps fans can dare to dream of Elite 8

College Basketball

March 16, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

PICK A WORD. Amazing. Incredible. Stunning. Sensational.

It has already been more than 24 hours since Gary Williams' youthful crew turned the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament on its ear, but we're still dusting off the long list of adjectives that aptly describe Maryland's run through Tobacco Road.

From the bubbling verge of NCAA tournament oblivion to a rock-solid No. 4 seed, how is it that a team that could not shoot straight up until its second-to-last game of the regular season finally finds it within itself to impersonate a Final Four team?

OK, make that Elite Eight, which is where this Terps team could reasonably be projected.

The Terps have already made a gigantic leap, reeling off a five-game pre-NCAA tournament win streak against Virginia, Wake Forest, N.C. State (twice) and Duke to make sure they weren't the Maryland team that broke the NCAA tournament appearance streak.

"Whether they wanted to or not, they heard about it. It was tough on them, especially not having gone through it before," Williams said.

But the Terps have suddenly emerged as a basketball team hell-bent on having fun. They can keep it rolling - if John Gilchrist can maintain the high and steady gear he has been in since he scored 26 points against Virginia on Feb. 4. That was the first turning point for the Terps, who needed their best player and floor leader to take hold of the reins and say, "Come on, fellas."

Say what you want about the big men, there's nothing like a point guard taking over a game, a tournament, a conference and, if Gilchrist can keep it going, a bracket.

The Terps hope Gilchrist didn't leave everything on the floor in Greensboro, N.C., where he made Dick Vitale and Co. babble in high praise.

Gilchrist averaged 24 points, had 19 assists and just six turnovers over the three-game tournament. He single-handedly raised the Terps' field-goal percentage from abysmal to good. Gilchrist shot 64 percent from three-point range (9-for-14) to lift the Terps from .290, worst in regular-season conference play, to .475 in the tournament.

His shooting and mood were contagious. Jamar Smith averaged 19.7 points and eight rebounds. Heading into the ACC tournament, the Terps were one of the worst free-throw-shooting teams in the country, ranked 318th (.609). They shot .755 from the line for the tournament.

"Shooting is all about concentration," Gilchrist said. "We grew up as a team and we're maturing. We're really putting our minds together."

If the NCAA rewards teams for peaking at the end of the season, then the Terps were right on time - hot when the pressure and bright lights were on them. Thank playmaker Gilchrist for making Maryland come alive.

Yup, we're all back on the bandwagon - and we're big enough to admit all that youth, speed and talent didn't do much to inspire confidence in the Terps as a do-or-die team.

Until now.

The scary thing about Maryland is that it's perfectly legitimate to project it into an Elite Eight showdown against Connecticut.

Not to overlook UTEP. The Miners will be gunning for Maryland the way Maryland gunned for Wake Forest, N.C. State and Duke. But for the Miners to take the first-round game, Maryland would have to revert to the clueless form it showed for much of the regular season.

That's possible, except that something in the way Gilchrist led a loose Terps squad through this five-game winning streak says the joyride isn't going to end in a whisper.

A potential Maryland-Syracuse showdown in the second round is a thing of beauty - even if neither team is remotely like the national champions of 2002 and 2003.

Stanford looms as potential Sweet 16 opponent for Maryland. And if Washington can push around this formerly unbeaten team, Williams' coaching experience and intensity could coax an upset, too.

Stanford may be the Pac-10 champion and the top seed in the Phoenix Regional, but the Pac-10 has only three entries in this year's tournament.

That leads us to an Elite Eight date between Maryland and Connecticut. What a perfect ACC-Big East showdown in the months before the ACC expands, courtesy of the Big East defectors, Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College.

Oddly enough, the only other team to elevate its status through conference tournament play was Connecticut. The Huskies' run was similar to Maryland's; Connecticut walked away with Pittsburgh's No. 2 seed after the Huskies won the Big East tournament. Maryland and Connecticut raised their stock in their respective conference tournaments. It's only fitting they factor into each other's fate.

Five terrific wins by the Terps, and look at the way we're talking. Fantastic.

Next for Terps

NCAA tournament first round: Maryland (19-11) vs. Texas-El Paso (24-7) in Phoenix Regional

Site: Pepsi Center, Denver

When: Thursday, 12:40 p.m.

TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 9/ WBAL (1090 AM)

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