COLLEGE PARK - An hour hadn't passed on their season-ending loss to Syracuse in the second round of the NCAA tournament in March, and the Maryland Terrapins were already thinking ahead.
A season of tremendous highs and frustrating lows, salvaged in one stunning weekend when the Terps won the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title, made the suddenly confident Terps hungrier for future success.
"I can't wait for us to get back on the court together again," said guard D.J. Strawberry not long after the 72-70 loss to the Orangemen.
Tonight, as Maryland opens its men's basketball season against Jackson State at Comcast Center, the Terps will be a completely different team from the one at this time last year.
Junior point guard John Gilchrist, the ACC tournament Most Valuable Player, has emerged as the Terps' leader; the five freshmen, each of whom contributed in some fashion last season, are a year older; and a team that nearly missed the NCAA tournament last season before its late-season run has much higher aspirations.
"All we have to do is play defense, play as a team," said junior guard Chris McCray, one of four returning starters. "We're deep and we have talent just like everybody else in the country. ... [People] are expecting us to be good, but they're not really expecting us to go as far as we know we can go."
And how far is that?
"We definitely can make it [to April]," McCray said.
McCray, of course, was referring to the Final Four (April 2-4 in St. Louis). Terps coach Gary Williams, who starts his 16th season at his alma mater, is comfortable with high expectations, but he cautioned that as many as 20 teams could be considered national championship contenders right now.
The Terps are ranked 15th in the Associated Press poll, but they have also garnered top-10 recognition in other outlets, like Sports Illustrated and ESPN Magazine. However, they've been picked as low as sixth in the loaded ACC.
"If you took whoever the best team in the country is right now, they wouldn't be good enough to win a national championship," Williams said. "So you have to get better. Good teams really improve when they start playing games."
In the Terps' two exhibitions, against Division II Bryant and two-time Canadian national champion Carleton University, Maryland looked solid at times and uninterested at others.
There were good signs, like the Terps hitting 62 of 83 free throws (74.7 percent) and the play of their post players, and then there were bad ones. The defensive effort was lacking for the majority of both games, and Williams even replaced the majority of his starting lineup in the second half against Carleton because the energy level wasn't meeting his demands.
Junior forward Travis Garrison offered no excuses, but he acknowledged that it is a challenge for the Terps to get up for exhibition games.
"In the second half of the Carleton game, the defense was so enthused and everybody was working so hard," said Garrison, who will start today on the front line with Nik Caner-Medley and Ekene Ibekwe, while Gilchrist and McCray will be the backcourt. "We have to do the same thing. ... I think a lot of guys are really ready to play a game that counts."
In a sense, tonight's game against Jackson State, a Southwestern Athletic Conference team that lost its top three scorers after a 12-17 season, and Tuesday's against Mercer, are extensions of the exhibition season.
Besides winning, the Terps need to work some things out before their schedule gets remarkably tougher. In the next two-plus weeks, the Terps will play No. 24 Memphis (Nov. 26 in Springfield, Mass.), at No. 21 Wisconsin (Nov. 30) and possibly No. 13 Michigan State in the final of the BB&T Classic on Dec. 5 in Washington.
"You'd like to think the players would approach the exhibition games [the same], but it's just a different situation right now," Williams said. "Everything counts, so here we go."
Sun staff writer Gary Lambrecht contributed to this article.