MEMPHIS, TENN. — MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- They have been hanging around the periphery for a while, rubbing shoulders and maybe a few elbows with college basketball's bigger-name programs. Tonight, the College of Charleston has a chance for a breakthrough onto the sport's largest stage -- the NCAA tournament.
If it happens, it will come at the expense of the Maryland Terrapins. With the nation's longest winning streak on the line, the Cougars are ranked six places higher, but seeded seven spots lower than the No. 22, fifth-seeded Terrapins in the Southeast Regional going into their opening-round game here at The Pyramid.
"Unless you're a No. 1 seed, I don't see any pressure on us," Maryland coach Gary Williams said earlier this week. "We're playing a team ranked higher than we are."
John Kresse doesn't disagree. The first time his Cougars made the NCAA tournament, as an at-large selection in 1994, they gave Wake Forest a surprisingly tough game before four late threes by the Demon Deacons resulted in a 68-58 defeat.
This time, Kresse knows it will be different.
"The first time we were rewarded with an at-large bid, it was the ultimate moment; it meant our program had reached a certain level," Kresse said from his home Tuesday night. "But since then we've grown quite a bit.
"We've had two NIT appearances and we're now in the Top 25 for the first time. It's kind of a Cinderella program, but we've got more pressure on us now. We can't play peek-a-boo and sneak up on anybody."
Nor do they plan to disappear quietly. The Cougars want to prove that their 22-game winning streak -- the longest in Division I -- isn't a fluke, despite playing in the low-rent Trans America Athletic Conference. Or that they've lost the fewest games -- 16 -- of any team in the past four years.
"It's an opportunity to showcase our team and to prove we can play with the elite teams in the country," said Thaddeous Delaney.
Delaney, a 6-foot-8, 250-pound senior who is called the "Shaq of the TAAC," is one of two fifth-year seniors (among four senior starters) Kresse starts.
Though recruited by bigger schools, including Clemson, Delaney followed another former Cougar star and TAAC Player of the Year, Marion Busby, out of Eau Claire High School in Columbia, S.C.
Asked to describe the College of Charleston, both in terms of the size of the campus and the stature of the team, Delaney said, "We're small, but we're kind of big."
It's just the way Kresse likes it. A native New Yorker who played for the legendary Joe Lapchick at St. John's and then coached under the legendary Lou Carnesecca on both the college and pro levels, Kresse has become something of an institution in what has become his adopted hometown.
In fact, after several big-time schools called Kresse to see if he could be enticed, the university did something that was nearly unprecedented. It named the gymnasium his team played in after the coach. And playing in their first game in John Kresse Arena, the Cougars nearly blew a game to a Division III team.
"I remember we had a very ornate ceremony before the game," said Kresse, 53, the only active coach aside from North Carolina's Dean Smith to be afforded that honor. "Then I'm sitting on the bench during the game and I'm thinking, if we lose, they're going to name it 'The John.' "
When St. John's made another run at Kresse last year, Carnesecca called on the school's behalf.
Kresse told his former boss there was one small problem.
"I told him, 'Lou, I can't go. They named the gym after me,' " said Kresse. "He told me, 'Hey, they can always take it off if you start losing.' "
That didn't happen the last time Kresse's team lost. It came in January at Oklahoma State, one of the few schools from bigger leagues that will even schedule the Cougars on the road.
Cowboys coach Eddie Sutton had trepidations doing it, even though he took some heat from alums who didn't know the College of Charleston from Charleston Southern.
"We were healthy and we played very well, but that was a tough game," Sutton said of a deceptively close, 18-point win. "They're a very good basketball team. If we had made the NCAA tournament, they're a team I wouldn't want to play. They're very disciplined, very smart and very experienced."
But Kresse knows it can all go away.
He recalls a card that both Lapchick and Carnesecca carried around with them throughout their Hall of Fame careers.
"They used to say it all the time -- proud peacock one day, NTC featherduster the next," he said.
The Cougars don't plan on being featherdusters tonight.
First-round NCAA tournament data for the three Maryland schools:
Opponent: College of Charleston
Site: Memphis, Tenn.
Time: Today, 7: 50 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Opponent: South Carolina
Time: Tomorrow, 2: 45 p.m.*
TV: Ch. 13
Site: Tucson, Ariz.
Time: Tomorrow, 5: 12 p.m.*
TV: Ch. 13
Complete schedule: 7d
A dangerous seed
Maryland did not get the luck of the draw in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The fifth-seeded Terrapins face 12th-seeded College of Charleston. The No. 12 seed has won at least one first-round game in the last eight NCAA tournaments. How the 12 seeds have fared in the first round since 1989:
Year W-L The upsets
1989 1-3 De Paul 66, Memphis 63
1990 2-2 Ball State 54, Oregon State 53; Dayton 88, Illinois 86
1991 1-3 Eastern Mich. 76, Mississippi State 56
1992 1-3 New Mexico State 81, De Paul 73
1993 1-3 George Washington 82, New Mexico 68
1994 2-2 Wis.-Green Bay 61, California 57; Tulsa 112, UCLA 102
1995 1-3 Miami (Ohio) 71, Arizona 62
1996 2-2 Arkansas 86, Penn State 80; Drexel 75, Memphis 63
Pub Date: 3/13/97