COLLEGE PARK -- Moments before midnight, the house lights went dark, the smoke machines on the court fired up and a full house of fans at Cole Field House counted down the seconds to the first official dribble of basketball season at the University of Maryland.
Ten! Nine! Eight!
"I think people are, ah, pretty excited," said Kurtis Shultz, a senior forward from Randallstown.
You could say that.
This night of Midnight Madness had been the talk of the campus all week. Who cared about the football team now that the basketball team was back on the court?
"What's a reasonable goal for the year?" a reporter asked Franchise Sophomore Joe Smith, shouting over the din of the
cheers and the rock music rattling the walls of the building.
"We can go as far as we want to," he shouted back, smiling.
L In other words: There is no limit, at least not in his mind.
The preseason magazines are listing the Terps anywhere from third to 18th in the nation. The story going around is that Sports Illustrated considered picking them No. 1 before choosing someone else.
"I remember at Midnight Madness two years ago," coach Gary Williams shouted, "I sat here with the schedule and tried to figure out where we might get one win on the ACC schedule."
Two years later, thousands of students were lined up outside Cole several hours before Midnight Madness began. They raced for the good seats once the doors were opened.
"We could hear them [from the locker room]," Shultz said. "They were yelling and throwing things."
Never mind that this team stumbled to the end of last season, losing seven of 11 regular-season games and getting eliminated in the first round of the ACC tournament, before beating outclassed Saint Louis and rallying to upset Massachusetts in the NCAA tournament.
NTC Never mind that this team will continue to play inconsistently if it continues to shoot as poorly from the outside as it did last season.
Never mind, in other words, that this team is generating all this preseason hullabaloo on the rather precarious basis of one terrific half against UMass.
It's too late for that now. Too late for caution. Too late for any limits on optimism when Cole is dark and smoky and sweaty at midnight and a full house is counting down the seconds.
"We're trying to win a national championship this year," Smith said.
And why not let the optimism overtake you? Everyone is back from last season. At every spot on the roster, the tentativeness and slenderness of youth is giving way to confidence and muscles. Exree Hipp has gained 20 pounds. Mario Lucas suddenly looks chiseled. Two freshmen are ready to play now. ("Rodney Elliott is a player," Williams said, offering the ultimate compliment.) The team runs eight-deep with major-leaguers.
How can the optimism not overtake you when the team rests on the shoulders of a player as gifted as Smith? Playboy has named him one of the nation's 10 best college players. He spent the summer lifting weights and working on his jumper, plotting to foil the double-teams he saw so often a year ago.
"The guy is going to do some serious damage this year," said Shultz, who guards Smith every day in practice. "He's stronger than he was a year ago. He has that lean strength."
Great expectations can be damaging, as the Orioles of 1994 proved, and they're always scary because they make the fall harder. But after what has happened at Maryland in the past decade, after Len Bias' death and all that it wrought, after the Bob Wade-Lew Perkins mess and the NCAA violations and probation, great expectations are a joy.
"The impression that most people have of our team was created basically from one game against UMass," Williams said as midnight approached. "But I think that impression is accurate. If we shoot the ball better than we did a year ago, and I think we will, thanks to added experience, we can play like we did against UMass."
There it is. Too late now. The building is crammed full of fans with crazy dreams in their heads on a Friday night in October. And everyone is buying it. And it just might make sense to buy it.
At the stroke of midnight, a spotlight illuminated a solitary figure at one end of the court: Keith Booth, the sophomore from Dunbar who gives the Terps their guts and attitude. He dribbled down the court through the smoke, the spotlight following him, the crowd cheering, and took a shot. His teammates followed, one by one, the noise building.
Last in line was Smith, the Franchise Sophomore himself, dribbling down the court, rising high and dunking backward as a head-banging wall of noise rained down on the court. When he landed, he raised his arms and asked the fans for more. The volume went up to 11. If you weren't ready for the season to start right there, right now, you didn't have a pulse.