OAKLAND, Calif. -- The NCAA tournament is truly a democracy this year. There is no super team putting a wrecking ball to everyone else's chances. Only a couple of the 16 remaining teams are incapable of winning the whole thing. It is hard to remember a year more wide-open.
Arkansas has the best team, but winning last year seems to have stripped the Razorbacks of their hunger. "Forty Minutes of Hell" has become "Forty Minutes of 'Feel Free to Dribble Right By Me, Sir.' " The Hogs have forgotten how to play defense.
UCLA is the best team according to the polls, but the Bruins would be outta here if Missouri had done anything more than wave at guard Tyus Edney as he weaved his way downcourt and scored the winning basket in the final seconds of their second-round game Sunday.
Kentucky was the best of the 64 teams during the first weekend, but let's see them play someone from a real conference before we anoint them as more than just another contender. Rick Pitino's teams tend to look good early and lose late, much to the dismay of the best little coach never to win a title.
Big Ten teams . . . oops, never mind.
Maryland? Yes, the Terps are one of the dozen or so teams capable of going all the way. Joe Smith's presence assures that.
Gary Williams all but admitted yesterday that he thought it was reasonable for his players to dream such big dreams.
"Nothing that happens is a surprise this year," he said. "It's the kind of year where you realize that, if we play well, we could really be all right."
That's Gary-ese for: Yes, the Final Four is a realistic goal.
But the Terps are legitimate contenders because they have the potential to play well enough, not because they have often done so lately. Few of their recent performances have been of the necessary quality. They have often played sloppily and appeared distracted.
If they don't find a higher gear than the one used against Gonzaga and Texas last weekend, they're not going to make it to the Final Four. Their inconsistency will cost them too much against smart teams such as Connecticut, tonight's opponent in the West Regional semifinals.
Yet it also is possible that the Terps will find the wherewithal to keep advancing. UConn is no better or worse than the Terps, and equally prone to long silences. And the Terps would have a fine chance against a UCLA team under a lot of pressure not to take yet another belly-flop shy of the Final Four.
First comes UConn, though, and a game that breaks down into some particularly tough matchups:
* Duane Simpkins against Kevin Ollie. Ollie is a more consistent scorer and ball handler, but not as explosive. The Terps can get by without points from Simpkins as long as he runs the team well -- which he hasn't always done lately -- but the Terps are tough when he scores a lot of points.
* Keith Booth against Donny Marshall. Marshall was brilliant against Cincinnati, but he is erratic. The Huskies suffer when he does. Booth, whose rebounding has been immense in the tournament, could tilt things in the Terps' favor by taking Marshall out of the game.
* Joe Smith against Travis Knight. An apparent mismatch, but Smith sometimes has trouble against 7-footers intent only on guarding him. (See: Gonzaga game.) Look for the Huskies to try to get him in foul trouble.
* Exree Hipp against Ray Allen. Maryland's hottest defensive player against UConn's offensive star. Allen is quicker, but so was Texas guard Terrence Rencher, whom Hipp shut down. Either Hipp gets in early foul trouble and becomes no factor, or his height and wingspan give Allen problems.
* Johnny Rhodes against Doron Sheffer. Two clever shooting guards with point guard skills. They'll drift here and there, help out, fill in holes.
Which matchup will prove decisive?
"All of them," Williams said. "We seem to be able to get by with a couple of players having off-nights offensively, although I'm not sure we can at this level. But no one can have an off-night defensively against UConn."
True. The Huskies run more than the Terps, so once again, as against Texas, the Terps will be in the unusual position of trying to slow down the pace. You do that by getting back on defense.
Normally, changing your style this late in the season isn't such a bright idea. But it doesn't hurt to lean on your half-court offense when it leads to Joe Smith.
The Terps have relied on Smith all season, of course, and have worked themselves right to the edge of making history. Only two Maryland teams have made it to the Final Eight, none to the Final Four.
These Terps either will redefine themselves as history-makers tonight, or they'll have to settle for a repeat of last year's Sweet 16 season.
It won't be a disaster -- "I can live with it," Williams said -- but it would hurt that much more knowing that the biggest dreams are realistic this year.