CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The mix of seniors and freshmen on the University of Maryland basketball team has not produced a great deal of success this season, but the Terrapins hope this combination works a little better for them at this year's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
It certainly presents a contrast in approach.
"I want the freshmen to learn, to get a feel for the whole thing," Maryland coach Gary Williams said earlier this week. "They're not going to be playing in the preliminary game later in their careers. The seniors have been through this. I expect them to play hard. Each game could be their last game."
For senior starters Kevin McLinton, Evers Burns and Chris Kerwin, there's a strong possibility that they will end their college careers here, either with tonight's opening-round game against North Carolina State or, if the Terps win, with tomorrow's 2:30 p.m. quarterfinal against top-ranked and top-seeded North Carolina.
For freshman starters Exree Hipp and Johnny Rhodes -- as well as reserves Mario Lucas and Duane Simpkins -- it's the chance to experience in person what they've only watched on television or heard about from friends.
"I think it's going to be different than the regular season," said Hipp. "They say it's a big event. I've seen it on television a couple of times, but as they say, it's a lot different playing in it."
This marks the second year that the ACC tournament, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary, will hold a preliminary game for its two bottom teams. Last year, Maryland beat Clemson, 81-75, before a surprisingly large crowd of more than 16,000 at the Charlotte Coliseum. The Terps then lost to top seed Duke, 94-87, in the quarterfinals.
Though Maryland (11-15) didn't want to be in this game again, the Terps will make the most of this chance. With a victory over N.C. State (8-18), Maryland would be in familiar -- albeit enemy -- territory.
"We're going into the same situation as we were in last year, to play in the 8-9 game and then if we win, play on national television against the top team in the country," said McLinton. "If we win tomorrow night, it's going to be hard [against North Carolina], but anything can happen."
Don't be surprised to see the freshmen play a significant role tonight. Their performance in the second half of Saturday's 88-74 regular-season-ending loss at Virginia was a reminder of what the future should hold for Maryland.
"It made us feel good," said Hipp, alluding to a comeback that cut a 20-point deficit to six. "We talked about it after the game. It showed that if we played hard, we can play with anybody."
Williams wants to be able to take advantage of his team's one decided edge on the Wolfpack: depth. It played a factor in both of Maryland's victories over N.C. State during the regular season, particularly in the 88-71 win at Cole Field House Feb. 24.
"The more players we can use, the better it is for us," said Williams.
Those victories could be a factor tonight, because it's usually difficult for one team to beat another of little or no difference in talent three times in the same year. If anything, the Wolfpack might have more talent than the Terps.
"The last two years we've been in the tournament, we've been involved in that kind of situation," said N.C. State coach Les Robinson. "One year we went 3-0, and the other year we went 0-3. When they're closer in talent, it is more difficult [to win three straight]."
Said Williams: "It's not like we just played them last week. It's just like playing them the second time when we hadn't met for a while."
With one notable exception.
It's the ACC tournament.
As McLinton said: "If we can win a couple of games here, we can erase a lot of what's happened this season."