COLLEGE PARK -- The basketball season was supposed to be over by now at Maryland, the excitement of the team's first winning record in three years beginning to wane. The school's first NCAA tournament appearance in six years was supposed to be only a cameo.
But the season continues, with the 10th-seeded Terrapins having left for Dallas last night for tomorrow night's Sweet 16 party against third-seeded Michigan at Reunion Arena. And the hysteria builds, with phone calls from coaches of potential recruits, as well as from potential donors, both wanting to know where and when they can sign on the dotted line.
The impact from the team's first visit to the regional semifinals since the 1984-85 season will be immediate. But the long-range effect should even be greater. He has thought only "fleetingly" about the possibilities, but Maryland coach Gary Williams said -- earlier this week: "The exposure you get from being in the Sweet 16 is incredible, especially compared to not being there."
This will be the third trip to the Sweet 16 for Williams, but it should have more significance to the long-dormant Maryland program than it did to Boston College, where he coached from 1982 to 1986. In that case, Williams inherited a successful team ++ from Tom Davis that had been to the final eight and Sweet 16 the previous two years.
In this case, Williams inherited a program in disarray, one that would be banned by the NCAA from postseason play for two years and television appearances for one. In his first two seasons after coming from Ohio State, Williams lost an all-star roster of recruits to other schools. The blue-chip players weren't the only ones to take their contributions elsewhere.
"Maryland's always been a great product," said assistant coach Art Perry, who came here from Old Dominion four years ago. "But the sanctions had sort of put Maryland on the back burner. Now, with the sanctions gone and Maryland being back in the NCAA tournament, the product is back in the limelight."
Perry knows how the spotlight of the NCAA Tournament can help a program, especially at a state school. As an assistant at Rutgers in 1976, Perry saw how the Scarlet Knights went from being a nice, little team in New Jersey to a burgeoning national power. Only a poor decision by administrators not to join a fledgling league called the Big East prevented Rutgers from maintaining that position.
Maryland is even in a better situation. Given the national respect of the Atlantic Coast Conference, the school's proximity to high school hotbeds along the East Coast and the program's tradition, the Terps might use this season's unexpected success as a springboard back to the top of the league and a regular spot in the Top 25.
"It tends to speed the timetable up a little," said Duke athletic director Tom Butters, who watched the Blue Devils emerge from similar slumber in the early '80s to become the first team to win back-to-back national championships since the UCLA dynasty. "It doesn't guarantee expediency, but it lends itself to it. It gives you not only visibility, but credibility."
Already, the basketball office at Maryland has received calls from the coaches of three or four high school juniors who suddenly are considering the Terps.
"It's not like the typical letter you get from a kid in Wisconsin who wants to send a tape," said Perry, the man credited with bringing Joe Smith to Maryland. "They're all good players."
The television exposure is mostly positive, but having four sophomores and three freshmen among the Terps' first eight players might deter some recruits who figure their court time could be limited. However, Perry said: "The guys who are underclassmen [in high school] now won't be coming here until our guys are juniors and seniors."
With three scholarships available for the spring signing period -- the Terps had only one entering the fall period, but John Walsh and Nemanja Petrovic transferred -- Maryland's march to the Sweet 16 could not have come at a better time. Among the players interested in Maryland is Dunbar forward Rodney Elliott.
"It has definitely caught my eye," said Elliott, a first-team All-Metro selection. "It must be fun being in the Sweet 16 and having all the media attention centered around you."
Elliott, who helped Dunbar, ranked No. 5 nationally by USA Today, to the state 2A championship and the area's No. 2 ranking, said he has narrowed his choices to Maryland, North Carolina State and Clemson.
"The whole Baltimore community is excited about the University of Maryland basketball team," said freshman forward Keith Booth, a former teammate of Elliott's who went home Sunday after getting back from Wichita, Kan. "Something like this is going to help us get quality athletes. I can't mention anybody by name, but I know guys who are interested in coming here."
The interest among alumni grew steadily through the season, with the team averaging a record number (13,644) of fans at Cole Field House. Last week, the school sold about 150 to 200 tickets for the games in Kansas, according to M Club executive director Greg Manning. This week, Manning said, "we put together a charter of 161 people in 40 hours and are just about sold out of our allotment of 1,050 tickets."
Manning, who started for the 1979-80 team that lost in the Sweet 16 to Georgetown, said that the phones in his office have been ringing constantly during the past few days.
"Obviously, it's hard to put it into terms of dollars and cents what it will mean to the M Club or Terrapin Club," said Manning, who also serves as analyst on the team's radio broadcasts. "But we've had calls from people who now want to get involved."
Dr. William E. Kirwan, the school's president, said he spent as much time in Annapolis this week speaking to budget committees in the General Assembly as accepting congratulations from legislators wanting to talk about Saturday's win over Massachusetts. When he got back on campus for a luncheon with a group of high school honor students, "the room broke into applause when I mentioned the team going to the Sweet 16. People identify with this team."
And point guard Duane Simpkins said that when his fellow students returned to school after spring break, there was more recognition than usual. Though no professor stopped class to give the sophomore from Fort Washington a standing ovation, "It was like the day after the Redskins won a big game; everybody was a lot happier."
The ovations came yesterday, when the team was given a rousing send-off during an afternoon pep rally in the parking lot behind Cole Field House.
The team boarded a bus behind the gym after practice around 5 p.m. Cheers rang out from the more than 200 students, cheerleaders and fans when players started emerging, but changed to "Boooooooooooth," when they realized the first one through was the freshman forward.
Because the nine ACC schools share revenues generated from television contracts, bowl appearances and NCAA tournament games -- and because tournament revenues are based on a six-year period that rolls over each spring -- Maryland has made only $50,000 more than it did when the Terps failed to qualify for postseason competition. In fact, because only two ACC teams reached the Sweet 16 this year (Duke is the other), Maryland ultimately will make less for this year's tournament than in recent seasons.
But Kirwan anticipates that the publicity received in the past few days could translate into more applicants, more donations and more interest from the state.
"We're about academics, but it's interesting to see how the commitment grows when the athletic teams are doing well," he said. "No question, the visibility of the basketball program is an attraction."
Len Elmore, a former All-American at Maryland who runs his own sports management company, said it's the university's job to take advantage of this turnaround in stature. Elmore is familiar with the exposure that the NCAA tournament provides, because he used to serve as one of its television analysts.
"There are a lot of people ready to jump on bandwagons," said Elmore, "and this one is rolling downhill."
All the way to a Sweet 16 party tomorrow night in Dallas. And who knows? Maybe even farther than that.
NCAA ON TV
* 8 p.m. -- Marquette vs. Duke*, channel 11
* 8 p.m. -- Syracuse vs. Missouri, channel 9
B6 * 10 p.m. approx. -- Purdue vs. Kansas, chs. 11, 9
* 8 p.m. -- Indiana vs. Boston College*, chs. 11, 9
* 10:30 p.m. approx. -- Maryland vs. Michigan, chs. 11, 9
*- Joined in progress
MICHIGAN vs. MARYLAND
MIDWEST REGIONAL SEMIFINAL
* Day: Tomorrow
* Time: 10:30 p.m. (approx.)
* Site: Reunion Arena, Dallas
* Seedings: Michigan No. 3, Maryland No. 10
* Records: Michigan 23-7, Maryland 18-11
* TV: Channels 11, 9
* Radio: WBAL (1090 AM)