KANSAS CITY, Mo. -In a tournament in which the giants and the giant-slayers are separated by just a hallway in an arena, just a few points on the scoreboard or just a couple of seconds on the clock, the Maryland men's basketball team isn't a group struggling through an identity crisis.
Forget what you hear on television. Mute the talk radio. Don't listen to the guy on the next bar stool. These Terps, who beat the University of California, 84-71, in the first round of the NCAA tournament yesterday, aren't ducklings that have become swans. They aren't some phoenix dusting ashes off her wings. And they aren't benefiting from that cliche of a second season.
This is a whole new team. Terps 2.0 lives to see another day in the tournament, and anybody judging this team by anything other than the past week is primed for disappointment.
It's what makes March so much fun. No, not every team is a Cinderella. We learned that late last night watching Morgan State, which put up a valiant effort against bracket bully Oklahoma but ultimately fell short in the school's first tournament appearance. Despite what Morgan's loss might imply, seeds only mean so much.
A couple of days ago, Maryland was a team rated too high in the tournament field. Yesterday, the No. 10 Terps topped the No. 7 Bears and showed us that Maryland is so far removed from that team that bounced on and off the bubble, that seedings carry little weight the rest of the way.
Do the Terps have a chance tomorrow to knock off Memphis, a team that has won 26 straight games and easily could have been a No. 1 seed? The Terps' colorful guard, Greivis Vasquez, didn't have to think twice.
"Definitely," said Vasquez, who led all scorers yesterday with 27 points.
Anyone who saw the Tigers struggle to get past No. 15 Cal State Northridge and then watched Maryland take the court just minutes later would have to agree that it's possible. If the Terps play smart, remain patient and execute the way they did against California, they could spoil a whole lot of brackets this weekend.
Anyone basing his prognostication on that December loss to Morgan or their stumbles in conference play would be wise to shorten his memory.
What was on display at the Sprint Center yesterday was a team with multiple scoring threats, various defensive attacks, creative offensive wrinkles, chemistry and confidence - all attributes that were faint concepts just a couple of months ago.
It was a group that not long ago was engulfed in controversy and destined for mediocrity. The pitchforks and torches have disappeared, though. Suddenly, the Terps are one win away from the Sweet 16, which Maryland hasn't reached since 2003.
"I just think it's a continuing process from October until now," coach Gary Williams said, "and hopefully we'll be a better team on Saturday when we play Memphis."
Doesn't it feel like a long time ago that the Terps lost their season finale at Virginia? At the time, it sure felt like the Terps pulled out of Charlottesville, Va., and left their NCAA tournament hopes behind.
Instead, they left something else back there. Was it baggage? The timidity? The fear of failure, of disappointing their coach?
The Terps went into the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament convinced a bid to the NCAA tournament was theirs for the taking, and they did so with a killer instinct that's serving them well here.
Suffice it to say, Freud would've had a field day with this team, a group that took months to suppress its id, that allowed an alter ego to succumb to distraction and that didn't embrace its ego - that couldn't buy into its true identity - until it was almost too late.
And now, we barely recognize these guys.
What happened to the Dave Neal who scored just two points against North Carolina less than a month ago? The guy who stole his No. 35 jersey and took the court against California was 6-for-11 and finished with 15 points.
Or the Adrian Bowie who was just one of five had two points 10 days later at North Carolina State? The guy who took his place yesterday in Kansas City had a sharp mohawk and wasn't scared to penetrate; he finished with 12 points, his best performance in the Terps' past seven games.
Or the Eric Hayes who failed to reach double digits during a crucial three-game stretch against N.C. State, Wake Forest and Virginia to close the season? The sixth man we saw jump off the bench yesterday was fearless, finishing with 14 points and stepping up big for the fourth straight game.
Expectations, old and new, aren't fueling this quest. Spoken out loud, the goals seem modest and simplistic: play better today than they did yesterday.
"Some teams buy into that better than others," Williams said. "These guys have bought into the idea that you can get better during the season."
They didn't become better players. They became different players.