SAN ANTONIO - Maryland coach Gary Williams has saluted his team continuously for getting this far and accomplishing this much.
The Terps lost four starters from the only national championship team in school history, yet finished second in the Atlantic Coast Conference and are still standing in the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16.
Seven times during Maryland's 10-year NCAA tournament run, the Terps have made it this far. With a victory over No. 7 seed Michigan State tonight, the sixth-seeded Terps would be the only team in this year's tournament to have made it to the Elite Eight for three straight seasons.
The Terps (21-9) lack the talent and have not approached the consistency of last season's squad, but look where their five seniors, led by guards Steve Blake and Drew Nicholas, and five newcomers have taken them. This is Maryland's third straight Sweet 16 and its fifth in the past six seasons.
"A lot of people thought we couldn't make it back to the Sweet 16 or even the tournament, so it has been great from that end, but it hasn't been easy," Williams said.
"I really respect what the seniors have accomplished this year. They will always be remembered for what they did last year, but this year they had to create their own identity. I am glad they took the time to see how good they could be."
Wait a minute. If the Terps are dethroned with a loss to the Spartans (21-12) tonight, the season is still a rousing success?
"You can't feel that way," Williams said. "You have to stay hungry and keep an edge. You can't be satisfied."
The Terps rediscovered their edge while taking apart No. 3 seed Xavier in the second round by 13 points on Sunday, exposing the Atlantic 10 as a conference that remains a cut below the big boys. Tonight, Maryland expects to encounter the real deal in Michigan State, a Big Ten power that has battled considerable adversity to reach this point.
The Spartans rely heavily on three freshmen and three sophomores in a nine-man rotation, navigated through a pile of injuries that kept them from practicing with all 13 scholarship players until mid-January, and five weeks ago stood with 14-11.
Since then, Michigan State has won seven of eight games, crushing No. 2 seed Florida, 68-46, in the second round. The Spartans are riding a physical front line, hot-shooting sophomore guard Charles Hill, trademark bullish rebounding and defense, and a tournament master in coach Tom Izzo.
Like Williams, Izzo is making his fifth Sweet 16 appearance in the past six years. Izzo also took the Spartans to three consecutive Final Fours from 1999 to 2001, winning a national title in 2000. Still, Izzo called last weekend's performance the best two-game NCAA tournament stretch he has witnessed during eight years at Michigan State.
"If we can get through this week, there's no question it would be the most rewarding Final Four for us," Izzo said.
The Spartans are a dangerous bunch, and Maryland knows it. Michigan State is playing more transition basketball of late, although Izzo usually prefers to push and shove, bleed the shot clock and keep the score in the 60's.
The Terps are wary of a front line of beef in 6-foot-8, 260-pound senior Aloysius Anagonye, freshman forward Erazem Lorbek (6-10, 240), freshman center Paul Davis (6-11, 240) and senior Adam Ballinger (6-9, 250), who comprise a tough group of rebounders and defenders.
"This game will come down to controlling the tempo and rebounding," said Maryland senior center Ryan Randle. "We've got to come out and jump on them and have fun while doing it. They're physical inside, and we've got to match that. I think we have four big men who can do that."
The Terps are counting on Randle (6-9, 245) to continue his recent success - 32 points and 21 rebounds last weekend. They also need senior 6-10 forward Tahj Holden to end his 4-for-16 shooting slump in the tournament.
And, after getting their best one-two punch of the season out of reserve post men Jamar Smith and Travis Garrison against Xavier, Maryland might need the backups to do it again.
However, the composure of seniors like Blake and Nicholas probably will dictate what happens tonight more than anything.
Nicholas, the team's leading scorer, has made two game-winning shots at the buzzer this month. Blake is the conductor who must counter Maryland's size disadvantage in the backcourt. He has 17 points, 16 assists and just three turnovers in the NCAA tournament.
"[Blake] is the consummate point guard. ... He gets my vote as one of the better point guards in America," said Izzo, who envies Maryland's experience.
"Contrary to popular belief, you don't coach a team to a championship. The players play the game. It's harder to knock off a team that has experience."