EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Some college basketball teams rush into the spotlight, stay a short time, and return to the hinterlands. And then there is the University of Maryland. Just call them the back-from-oblivion Terrapins.
After playing a season in shadows cast by a NCAA probation, the unbeaten and heretofore, unseen Terps will re-emerge at 7 o'clock tonight, when they play Providence (2-3) at Meadowlands Arena in the ACC-Big East Challenge.
It marks the first live television appearance for Maryland (3-0) since the 1990 Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. In the featured game tonight, fifth-ranked North Carolina (4-0) meets No. 6 Seton Hall (2-0).
"I like the fact that we're on national television, because the kids deserve that chance," Maryland coach Gary Williams said yesterday. "We had some great games last year that only the people on campus knew about."
What Williams likes even more is that the Terps come into this season's Challenge playing more cohesively on offense and a lot harder on defense than they did the past two years. In both seasons, Maryland was blown out and, to an extent, embarrassed, losing to Connecticut by 22 in 1989 and to Boston College by 15 last year.
Asked if he will bring up the Terps' first two appearances in this soon-to-be-ending series, Williams said: "I've never been one to do that with any of my teams. How can a game you played last year make any difference? If you're a player, you're playing for pride because you want to win. You don't need any outside motivation."
But while Williams chooses to ignore those games, his players can't forget. This is a group that's been hit by the NCAA with a two-year ban from postseason competition (last season and this year), and a one-year live TV ban, so the Challenge is as big a stage as they'll play on until they go off probation next season.
"I can't wait [for tonight]," said Evers Burns, Maryland's junior center and its second-leading scorer behind Walt Williams. "Being on live television. Being on national television. We're in the ACC, one of the top leagues in the country, going against the Big East. It's the top vs. the top."
It doesn't matter that the Terps and Friars were picked near the bottom by nearly everyone in their respective conferences, seventh of nine and 10. While Maryland has its own baggage to carry into this ESPN game, so do the Friars.
For Providence, which two years ago beat Clemson in its only appearance in the series, it's a chance to make up for being excluded from last year's Challenge. It's also an opportunity for the Friars to prove that they are better than the first five games this season have shown.
"It was very hard sitting out last year," said senior forward Marques Bragg. "People want to know why you're not playing when the rest of the Big East is. It was embarrassing."
Now the Friars are being asked another question: What's wrong? In two of its defeats, Providence blew double-digit leads to weaker competition, losing to Chaminade after being up 19 and on Sunday to cross-town rival Brown after being up 15 late in the first half. The 71-69 defeat to the Bruins was the second overtime loss this year.
"I told the players after the game that they didn't have any fight in them," said Providence coach Rick Barnes, a former assistant under Gary Williams at Ohio State. "I know that can change because we have some guys who can fight. I will go with guys who are willing to fight."
Barnes will use players who can handle the ball. Providence will start its fourth lineup this season and use freshman Ira Bowman at point guard. The Friars have committed 110 turnovers, prompting Barnes to joke, "We have given new meaning to the word."
Conversely, Maryland's pressure defense has forced 94 turnovers in three games. But the Terps might not be able to press as much for a couple of reasons. First, Providence is a lot more athletic than Maryland, and bigger. Also, the Terps' frontcourt is a bit banged up, meaning that Burns will have to stay on the floor longer than usual.
"I can go 40," he said.
Hey, this is live national television. And at Maryland, it's been a while.
NOTES: North Carolina C Eric Montross, who missed the Tar Heels' last 2 games against Towson State and Cornell because of a bruised foot, practiced yesterday is expected to play tonight. Aside from the Williams-Barnes connection, Maryland assistant coach Corey Gavitt's brother, Danny, is an assistant at Providence. Their father Dave, the president of the Boston Celtics, is former coach and athletic director at Providence, as well as the former commissioner of the Big East.