COLLEGE PARK -- There will be a sellout crowd at Cole Fiel House. There will be a nationally respected, if not currently ranked, opponent. And, most significant, there will be a five-game winning streak on the line.
Though it's still December, quite a bit will be at stake tonight for the University of Maryland basketball team. In a game that could serve as a barometer for their chances in the Atlantic Coast Conference this season, the Terrapins (6-1) take on Louisville (2-3) at 8 p.m.
"I think it will be a good test for us as a team," said senior forward Evers Burns. "This is a very big game. We're playing a team that was ranked preseason No. 13. They beat us pretty badly last year. We want to see where we're at. This is what college basketball is all about."
What college basketball isn't about came Saturday night, when Maryland faced Morgan State. The Terps disposed of the Bears (0-7) easily, building a 25-point lead in the first 13 minutes and going on to a 103-63 victory.
Aside from a career-high, 17-point performance from freshman forward Nemanja Petrovic, the most positive aspect to the game for the Terps was that nobody got hurt and that coach Gary Williams got to use his bench freely. None of the starters played more than 30 minutes, and five reserves played 10 minutes or more.
Asked what he wanted to get out of Saturday's game, Williams said: "Confidence and rest. We got both."
Tonight will be vastly different in atmosphere and intensity. This will mark the first non-conference home sellout since Maryland beat Arkansas five years ago. Despite its losing record, this season's Louisville team is one of the best coach Denny Crum has had recently.
"Potentially it is," Crum said last week, during the team's nine-day break for exams and holiday. "We don't have a confidence problem. We have a winning problem."
The Cardinals have lost two games at the buzzer, on a follow by Vanderbilt's Chris Lawson on Dec. 9 in Nashville, Tenn., and on a double-pump, three-point shot by Georgia Tech's James Forrest Dec. 19 at the Georgia Dome. It was the third time Forrest, a sophomore, hit a last-second shot to win, including one at Maryland last year.
That defeat left Crum stuck two shy of becoming the 33rd Division I coach to reach 500 wins in a career. Four of those victories -- along with no defeats -- have come against Maryland, most recently a 96-79 win last season at Freedom Hall. Louisville is 5-0 overall against the Terrapins.
"I bet half the kids don't know [about his going for 500]," said Crum, who won national championships at Louisville in 1980 and 1986.
Maryland will try to keep Crum in a holding pattern. Last week's 78-68 victory over Towson State served as a wake-up call, but tonight could be a rude awakening for the Terps if they don't raise their level of play a few notches.
After the Morgan State game, most of the Maryland players seemed focused already on Louisville.
"I'm ready to play a good team," said freshman guard Johnny Rhodes, whose game has sagged a bit of late.
Williams certainly seems to be looking forward to his team's playing in front of a full house instead of 5,000 die-hards scattered about Cole Field House. The start of the ACC season -- Georgia Tech on Jan. 5 -- is a little more than a week away.
He said he is interested to see how his Terps, especially the freshmen, react.
"I think there's a tendency to get too excited," said Williams. "I'd rather have that [a sellout crowd]. Hopefully, the crowd will really help us."
A sellout crowd won't fluster the Cardinals. Except for its victory over Michigan State at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Louisville has played in front of large numbers all season, including 28,885 at the Georgia Dome.
"We always do," said Crum.