OAKLAND, Calif. -- Both Maryland and Connecticut found disappointment in their respective NCAA tournament regional semifinal games a year ago. Neither the Terrapins, who weren't expected to get that far, nor the Huskies, who were, found the Round of 16 to be very sweet.
Maryland fell behind early to Michigan and trailed by as many as 21 points before starting a belated comeback that resulted in a 78-71 defeat. Connecticut seemed to be on the verge of victory over Florida, but Donyell Marshall missed two free throws with three seconds left in regulation and the Huskies lost in overtime, 69-60.
Flash ahead to tonight's second NCAA West Regional semifinal at the Oakland Coliseum. Seeded third, the Terps hope to erase last year's memory and do something that no Maryland team has done for the past 20 years: play for a chance to go to the Final Four. In the way is second-seeded Connecticut, looking to make the Final Eight for the first time in five years.
"We were so happy to have beaten Massachusetts [in the second round last year] just to get the Sweet 16s, we didn't really focus as hard as we should have on Michigan," Maryland coach Gary Williams recalled yesterday. "The difference is that we thought we'd beat Texas this year [in the second round]. We didn't think we'd beat UMass."
This time, Connecticut is not taking anything for granted. The Huskies are much more aware of the Terrapins than they were of the Gators, who went on to beat Boston College and reach the Final Four. They are not playing scared, as they were accused of doing a year ago.
"We just have to go out and play with a lot more enthusiasm," said senior point guard Kevin Ollie. "We have to play with the will to win. Last year we just went out and played and didn't have all those things. We don't want this to be the last game for all the seniors."
It is a matchup of two remarkably similar teams and coaches. Both the 10th-ranked Terps and eighth-ranked Huskies like to run, and much of their respective offenses are predicated on the success of their defensive pressure.
Both are well-balanced, but are led by sophomores Joe Smith and Ray Allen. Both Williams and Connecticut's Jim Calhoun are considered among the best expletive-and-O coaches in the country.
"They mirror us so much that I don't think it will come down to doing special things," said Calhoun, who has a 2-3 record against Williams, with both wins coming at Connecticut. "It will come down to execution. We have to do a good job of doing what we like to do."
Said Maryland forward Keith Booth: "Both teams are good in transition. They're going to make some great plays and we're going to make some great plays. It's going to come down to who wants it more."
Both teams will have to decide whether or not to concentrate on stopping the other's leading scorer, or whether to put a lid on Smith's and Allen's supporting cast. That decision will have a lot to do with the matchups defensively, especially for Maryland.
Williams said yesterday that he plans to use junior forward Exree Hipp, who at 6 feet 8 has a three-inch height advantage, on Allen. Calhoun will start with 7-footer Travis Knight, who's been prone to fouls so far in the tournament, as well as reserves Eric Heyward and Kirk King, on Smith.
Smith is coming off a record-breaking performance against Texas in the second round, which came after a subpar game against Gonzaga.
The sophomore All-American, who had only nine points and four rebounds in the opening round, set school records in an NCAA tournament game for rebounds (21) and blocked shots (seven) and tied the record for most points (31).
"Joe Smith is the best player in the country," Calhoun said yesterday. "He is a special, special player. He gets better every time you watch him on tape. But he has a great supporting cast."
Of the teams on Connecticut's schedule, Calhoun compares Maryland most to Villanova. After winning the first regular-season game between the teams, the Huskies lost decisively in their past two meetings, including in the Big East tournament final.
Of his team's opponents, Williams said that Connecticut is most like North Carolina in the way it gets out on the break and has several options to score. After losing to the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill early on, Maryland won comfortably in College Park over then-top-ranked North Carolina and then lost in overtime in the ACC tournament semis.
"Whenever you go up against a team that's been ranked No. 1 during the season like Connecticut has, it gets your juices going," said Booth. "We've done a great job in getting focused in our big games."
Said Smith: "We came in looking to put together a six-game xTC winning streak and win a national championship. We've done a lot, but we still have a lot more to do."
Something Maryland didn't do last year.
Something it hasn't done for the past 20.