COLLEGE PARK -- Within moments after the seedings were announced last night for this year's NCAA tournament, Dick Vitale had picked them to go to the Final Four.
The Maryland Terrapins.
The team that a week ago yesterday had lost its final regular-season game by 25 points at Virginia. The team that five days before had lost its head coach, Gary Williams, with pneumonia.
Both Maryland and Williams are apparently recovered. Though Williams' doctors might not be pleased with where the NCAA tournament selection committee is sending the Terps, his players and the team's fans should be ecstatic.
The mild, mild West.
It is a region where Eastern teams have had more than a modicum of success over the years, and Maryland could be the next in line. The Terps, the region's No. 3 seed, will open Thursday against West Coast Conference champion Gonzaga, the No. 14 seed, in Salt Lake City.
"There are a lot of teams in that region who play like we do -- Texas, Connecticut and UCLA," junior forward Exree Hipp said of the potential West Regional opponents in Maryland's path to the Kingdome. "The slowdown teams like Wake Forest and Clemson, those are the teams that make the games ugly and can give us trouble because each possession is so important."
The Terps also might not face the other kinds of teams that have presented problems: physical teams such as Virginia or teams with big front lines such as Florida State. With the way Maryland's bench played in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, depth shouldn't be that big a problem either.
But first there is Gonzaga, a team making its first NCAA tournament appearance.
Williams said he doesn't know much about the Bulldogs' personnel, except that NBA all-time assist leader John Stockton went there. But he knows all about Gonzaga's mind-set, having coached a team with similar dreams of making a name for itself in March.
"We were Gonzaga last year," Williams said of a Maryland team that barely made the 64-team field as a No. 10 seed, upset nationally ranked Saint Louis and Massachusetts in Wichita, Kan., and made it to the Sweet 16 before losing to Michigan in Dallas. "We know what it feels like. We have to guard against [being overconfident]. It's a different story this year."
Seeding aside, the Terps are certainly coming into this year's tournament with a much higher profile, with a likely first-team All-American, ACC Player of the Year (which will be announced today) and potential national player of the year in sophomore center Joe Smith.
Then there's the comeback of Williams, who likely will return to coaching after missing the past four games with pneumonia. Williams made his first public appearance yesterday, noticeably thinner but not lacking the edge that serves as the emotional trigger for his players.
"He was his old self, making those little jokes of his during the selection show," said junior guard Duane Simpkins.
The consensus in Greensboro, N.C., was that Maryland had its confidence buoyed by Saturday's performance -- a 97-92, overtime loss to North Carolina in the ACC tournament semifinals -- but Williams said that he got the feeling his team was back even earlier. "I liked what I saw in the second half against Florida State," he said of his team's comeback win.
The first two rounds of the NCAA West Regional for Maryland will not be unlike the first two games this season in the Maui Invitational: a small, disciplined team that it's expected to beat and a team -- either Texas or Oregon -- that likes to run and shoot threes.
Then there are the two teams seeded ahead of the Terps: top-ranked, top-seeded UCLA, which comes into this year's tournament trying to fight off its label as early-round chokers, and second-seeded Connecticut, which comes in off yesterday's loss to Villanova in the Big East championship.
"I think UCLA could lose to Indiana in the second round," said junior forward Mario Lucas.
The difference this year is remarkable. After finishing .500 in the conference and losing in the opening round of the ACC tournament, Maryland sweated out last year's NCAA bid, the school's first in six years. (In fact, if it had been this year, the Terps wouldn't have made it. Ask Georgia Tech.)
"Last year, we were sitting around hoping," said sophomore forward Keith Booth. "Today, when we came over to watch, we were just waiting to see where we were going and who was in our bracket."
Now, they will try to become the latest Eastern team to conquer the West.
NEXT FOR MARYLAND
Opponent: Gonzaga (21-8)
Where: Salt Lake City
When: Thursday (time to be announced today)