— Arriving at the site of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, Maryland swingman Dez Wells began thinking about the most memorable players — Juan Dixon, Jay Williams, Shane Battier — he had watched in the tournament as a young fan who was more than a little star struck.
Years ago, Wells sent a letter to Williams, the former Duke star who was the tournament's most valuable player in 2000. Asked what the letter said, Wells, who is from Raleigh, N.C., replied with a sheepish smile: "I wish I could be like you."
That's the thing about the ACC tournament — its tradition has a way of energizing players, particularly the younger ones.
"It's just a big time of year," said Maryland coach Mark Turgeon, whose Terps (20-11, 8-10 ACC) play Wake Forest (13-17, 6-12) in the opening round Thursday night at Greensboro Coliseum. "You really don't worry about your team getting excited. I think everybody is fired up. I sensed it in practice today. It's just a great arena — one of the best tournaments in the country."
Wells is a sophomore but played for Xavier last season. A handful of other players in Maryland's regular rotation — four freshmen and transfer Logan Aronhalt — are also making their ACC tournament debuts.
"I always thought I was going to be an ACC kid growing up, so I watched all the tournaments," said freshman forward Charles Mitchell. "I was in love with (former North Carolina star) Tyler Hansbrough. That was someone I looked up to when I was in high school. He was so intense — he was an energy player."
The Terps, who almost certainly need to win the entire tournament to gain an NCAA tournament berth, seemed to enjoy themselves at Wednesday's open practice. They conducted a "charging" drill in which a stationary player would be rammed by a ball handler at high speed. "It's fun. They get to hit each other," Turgeon said.
The tournament is also a social experience. With a dozen teams staying in close proximity, it's hard for players not to bump into old friends. " I know some of these kids I played basketball with in high school," Mitchell said. "I bumped into one of my longtime friends — from Wake Forest actually."
Mitchell knows the friend, freshman Aaron Rountree, from Amateur Athletic Union games.
Maryland, which may end its season in the NIT, has extra motivation here. The Terps lost three of their last four regular-season games, including an overtime defeat at Virginia in which they surrendered a 17-point lead. They are desperate to have their season end on a more satisfactory note.
"The Virginia loss hurt more than any other loss we had all year because we were invested. There were tears in the locker room," Turgeon said. "That's a good sign."
The ACC tournament presents a chance to start over. That's the message Turgeon is telling his team.
"We had our ups and downs during the regular season, but it's a clean slate for us right here," said freshman center Shaquille Cleare. "I never thought that I'd be here. I'll take it all in while I'm here."
Maryland, the No. 7 seed, defeated 10th-seeded Wake Forest twice during the season. If the Terps win, they would face Duke on Friday night. The second-seeded Blue Devils have a first-round bye.
"The beauty of college basketball is anyone can be beaten," Wells said. "It's really dangerous when you get to tournament time because you don't have to be the best team, you just have to be the best team on a given night for 40 minutes. That's something that really makes the tournament so interesting to watch."
Note: Maryland center Alex Len said it's too early to say whether he will return for his junior season or opt for the NBA draft. "I'm just trying to go ahead day by day and play every game. Right now, I'm focused on Wake Forest and I'm just going to think about it after the season," Len said. The seven-footer, who is projected as a top-10 pick in many mock drafts, is averaging 11.8 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. He has scored in single digits in four of his last six games.