DALLAS -- A month ago tonight, the University of Maryland basketball team checked into a South Carolina hotel for a game at Clemson, its once promising season starting to unravel after a devastating defeat at North Carolina State, its once bubbling confidence beginning to go flat.
"We were really down then," Maryland coach Gary Williams recalled yesterday of what turned into a three-game losing streak that raised serious questions about his team's postseason possibilities. "Other teams had lost at N.C. State. North Carolina lost at Clemson. You just tell the players that it's part of being in a tough conference. You just try to turn it into a positive. But we had hit a wall."
Tonight, as the 10th-seeded Terrapins check into Reunion Arena, their season has hit a high and the wall has come down, the expectations exceeding nearly all but those of sophomore forward and pre-eminent forecaster Exree Hipp's, their confidence surging going into a Sweet 16 showdown with third-seeded Michigan. The Midwest Regional matchup marks the third straight Sweet 16 appearance by the Wolverines, and the first for the Terps in nine years.
Maryland (18-11) isn't the favorite to beat Michigan (23-7) and advance to Sunday's final against the winner of tonight's first game between top-seeded Arkansas and 11th-seeded Tulsa, but the 5 1/2 -point line is a measure of the respect the Terps have
received since their 95-87 upset of second-seeded Massachusetts Saturday in Wichita, Kan.
"It's the final 16," said Williams, whose last appearance in the Sweet 16 came here in 1985 when his Boston College team lost to Memphis State. "I think Michigan wants to win and we want to win. I don't think anybody's taking anybody lightly."
Said Michigan center Juwan Howard: "They're on a good roll, playing good ball," he said. "The only team that can stop them is a team like a Michigan."
Truth is, Maryland matches up better with Michigan than it did with the Minutemen. The Terps are not as big or as experienced as the Wolverines, but Michigan coach Steve Fisher concedes they could be the quickest team he has seen all season. And Maryland's pressure defense could present problems for a team not noted for taking care of the ball.
"What sometimes appears to be easy isn't," said Fisher. "We've got a league filled with athletic players, but none as a team more so than the one we're playing next."
This is as perfect a scenario for Maryland as Williams or his players could have imagined: the Terps have absolutely nothing to lose and they played well enough in the second half against Massachusetts to beat anybody left in the tournament; Michigan, which has reached the NCAA final the past two years, is not playing as well as it did a month ago.
On top of that, the crowd most likely will be fervently behind Maryland. Arkansas fans want their beloved Razorbacks to have an easier road to next week's Final Four in Charlotte. The locals likely will be for the Terps since the Wolverines beat Texas in the second round. Except for the Michigan fans, including the family and friends of Texas natives Jimmy King and Ray Jackson, Maryland could find the place almost as user-friendly as Cole Field House.
"We were kind of hoping for Michigan to beat Texas," said Hipp, whose preseason prediction of his team getting this far will fast ,, become the stuff of legend if Maryland continues to advance. "Playing Texas in Texas would have been a whole different way to look at the basketball game. We've watched [Michigan] so much on television the last two years that we kind of know what to expect. But preparing for a game is a different story."
Said Howard: "Whoever the crowd is cheering for, you can't worry about it. If you do -- forget it."
One thing certainly in favor of the Wolverines is their NCAA tournament experience, and their perfect record in close tournament games since Fisher became Michigan coach on the eve of the 1989 NCAA tournament. The only blot on this team's postseason record are losses to Duke and North Carolina the past two years in the championship game. Fisher is 12-0 in games decided by five points or fewer, 19-3 overall.
"We've been here before," said Fisher, "and I think that will be an asset."
But Fisher knows how dangerous a young team without a care or a conscience can be during March. Two years ago, when the Fab Five were still intact and freshmen, Michigan beat an experienced Ohio State team led by All-American Jimmy Jackson in the Southeast Regional final at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky.
Fisher recalled how Jackson said after the game that "we played like seniors and they played like freshmen."
Tonight, Maryland must demonstrate those same qualities. The Terps might not ever shoot as well as they did against Massachusetts -- including 19 of 27 in the second half, eight of 10 overall on three-pointers -- but they can't afford to have any lapses at either end of the court.
"We have a lot to play for, so there's pressure on us," said Hipp, who likely will be matched up with All-American Jalen Rose. "We've just got to keep playing for 40 minutes. If we do that, we can beat anybody."
A month ago, the idea of beating anybody seemed difficult for Maryland. But tonight, even the idea of beating Michigan doesn't seem that far-fetched.