WICHITA, Kan. -- A year ago, the Maryland basketball team was well into its spring break, trying to forget a 13-16 season. At the same time, Saint Louis was healing similar wounds, though a 12-17 record was seen as marked improvement from a five-win season the year before.
Today, those memories will seem distant when the Terrapins (16-11) and the 24th-ranked Billikens (23-5) meet in the opening game of the NCAA Midwest Regional's first round at the Kansas Coliseum. It marks Maryland's first trip to the NCAA tournament in six years; Saint Louis hasn't been to the tournament since 1957.
"This is something kind of new to us," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, who will make his first NCAA tournament appearance since taking Ohio State to the second round in 1987, and takes a 4-3 record into his fifth career appearance. "It will be interesting to see how we react."
Said second-year Saint Louis coach Charlie Spoonhour, who won once in six tournament games in nine years at Southwest Missouri State: "We are very, very happy to be here. We're looking forward to playing some more basketball."
Each team has the other pretty much figured out: Maryland knows that it has to cut down on Saint Louis' three-point proficiency, especially junior guard Erwin Claggett's. Saint Louis realizes that it must cut off Maryland's inside game, in particular freshman center Joe Smith.
"They remind me a lot of N.C. State in the way they look for the three-point shot," said Williams, remembering the first-half scorching the Terps took in a 79-71 loss to the Wolfpack last month in Raleigh, N.C. "They do a very good job executing what they want."
Said Spoonhour: "Our guys have probably watched as much film on them as I have. They remind me of Memphis State and Arizona with having a dominating inside player. We'll try to keep them from mangling us on the boards. That's going to be very difficult for us. They've got a great rebounding team with great quickness."
Both teams have had problems with the other's style of play. Because of its full-court pressure, Maryland often gives up wide-open three-point attempts if the press doesn't produce turnovers. Conversely, Saint Louis has had trouble against teams with the kind of defensive presence Smith provides.
But the Terps have had success against smaller teams, and the Billikens' tallest player is 6 feet 8. Saint Louis has had success against teams that commit a lot of turnovers, and Maryland had 40 more turnovers than assists.
So, who's going to exploit the other's weakness?
"The team that plays the best 'D' is going to win," said senior Donnie Dobbs, the Billikens' 6-3, 230-pound power forward.
That might be true because neither team is lighting it up offensively coming into the tournament. The Terps shot 32.8 percent, including 3-for-15 on three-point tries, in last Friday's 69-63 loss to Virginia in the ACC tournament quarterfinals. After shooting better than 48 percent during their 19-1 start, the Billikens have slumped to a shade over 40 percent during a 4-4 finish.
Another factor could be the crowd. While both teams had the allotment of 300 tickets, the Billikens likely will be viewed as the home team by the Wichita State fans because of Spoonhour's former affiliation with the Missouri Valley Conference. Spoonhour looking for any edge he can get.
"I think it could be helpful," he said. "I hope it will be helpful."
Though only one player on both teams has been to the NCAA tournament -- Saint Louis guard H Waldman was a freshman reserve on the Nevada-Las Vegas team that lost to Duke in the 1991 semifinals -- there is no sense of just being happy to be here. The Terps also want to continue the school's string of 10 straight first-round victories in the NCAA tournament.
"For us, it was very exciting when we heard we were going, but now we just want to go out and play," said Maryland guard Johnny Rhodes.
Said Dobbs: "We've been anticipating coming here for a while. Now that we're here, we want to win a few games. It'll be a big disappointment to me if we lose."
After watching all the tapes, and after all the buildup that accompanied both teams in their march back from the forgotten to the chosen, there is only one problem to settle before this afternoon's 12:20 p.m. tip-off. The nicknames.
"We're still trying to figure out what a Billiken is," Williams said jokingly, "and they're still trying to figure out what a Terrapin is."
SAINT LOUIS (23-5) vs. MARYLAND (16-11)
Site: Kansas Coliseum, Wichita, Kan.
Time: 12:20 p.m.
TV: Channels 11, 9
Radio: WBAL (1090 AM)
Regional/seedings: Midwest. Maryland, No. 10; Saint Louis, No. 7
What Maryland needs to do to win: The Terps have to get the ball inside to C Joe Smith (19.2 ppg, 10.6 rpg), but to do that they need to be able to hit some outside shots early. They also must prevent Saint Louis G Erwin Claggett (17.5 ppg) from getting into any rhythm on his jumper.
What Saint Louis needs to do to win: The Billikens can't allow Smith to have a field day inside, which means double-teaming him and letting 6-3, 235-pound Donnie Dobbs get a body on him. They also must shoot better than they have recently, especially Claggett, who is shooting 29 percent the past nine games.