For the four seniors on the Maryland men's basketball team, this NCAA tournament represents the final hurrah of their college careers. Friday's game against South Dakota State is their first step, but it won't be their last, vowed Jake Layman.
"Well, we're not going to lose, first of all," the forward said with a chuckle. "I'm excited. This is my last time playing in college. So I've got to go out there and play as hard as I can and leave it out there on the floor."
The 18th-ranked Terps (25-8) on Sunday night learned the path they must take to send their seniors out in style after a disappointing regular season. Maryland, ranked No. 3 in the preseason, earned the No. 5 seed in the South region and will open against No. 12 seed South Dakota State (26-7) in Spokane, Wash., at about 4:30 p.m Friday.
Terps coach Mark Turgeon, whose team was projected by some to receive a No. 4 seed, said the tournament selection committee's decision to not award Big Ten Conference tournament champion Michigan State a No. 1 seed was telling.
"I think when Michigan State came up with a 2 [seed], we all felt like we would slide a spot," Turgeon said. "And in the Big Ten, everybody pretty much slid a spot. Indiana is a [5 seed], and they won our league. Purdue's a 5 [seed], and they had a heck of a year. It is what it is."
Senior guard Rasheed Sulaimon said the team was not bothered by the seeding.
"We're not worried about it," the Duke transfer said. "We're just excited that we still have an opportunity to fulfill one of our goals that we set earlier in the year. This is the ultimate goal, to win the whole thing and to win the national championship. So regardless of our seeding, we know we're going to have to play big teams to complete our goal anyway. So I'm just happy about our seeding, and we're ready to get things rolling."
Maryland (25-8) returned Sunday morning from Indianapolis after defeating Nebraska in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals and falling to Michigan State in the semifinals. Despite the loss, the team's play was encouraging to Turgeon.
"We feel much better about ourselves than we did a week ago," he said. "We went and played well. We really shot the ball well and executed well against Nebraska. Then we really guarded well yesterday against an excellent Michigan State team. So we feel better. We would have liked to have won, we would have liked to have played today in the championship game, but we didn't. But last week, we really just worked on us, and we're going to do that again this week, just try to get better. There's a lot of things coming together."
Maryland's opponent, South Dakota State (26-7), shared the Summit League regular-season title and won its tournament championship to advance to the NCAA tournament for third time in five years.
The Jackrabbits are led by 6-foot-9, 230-pound redshirt freshman forward Mike Daum, who leads the team with 15.2 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. Senior guards George Marshall and Deondre Parks average 14.9 and 14.7 points, respectively.
In 2011-12, South Dakota State lost to Baylor in the first round. The following year, the Jackrabbits fell to Michigan, also in the first round.
The two teams are not strangers. Both played in the Cancun Challenge in late November, and although they never met on the court, they watched each other's games.
"They're a good program," Sulaimon said. "They're a great shooting team that can really space the court. So we're going to have our hands, and they're also going to have their hands full with us, too. So it should be a great game."
Said Turgeon: "We know a lot about South Dakota State. They were in Cancun with us. Heck of a team. Extremely well coached. So we know how good they are. Our guys got to see them live for two games, and they got to watch us live for two games. So we're very familiar with each other."
If the Terps defeat South Dakota State, they would advance to Sunday's second-round game and face the winner of the California-Hawaii matchup. The No. 4 seed Bears (23-10) finished third in the Pac-12 Conference and advanced to the conference tournament semifinals. This is their first tournament appearance in four years.
The No. 13 seed Warriors (27-5) captured the Big West Conference regular-season and tournament titles for the first time since joining the league in 2012. They last qualified for the NCAA tournament in 2002, and their 27 wins match a single-season school record.
But Sulaimon and Layman emphasized the importance of not looking beyond the Jackrabbits.
"You're got to come out for every game and play as hard as you can," Layman said. "I think last year, [Valparaiso] kind of surprised us a little bit. So this year, we know going into the tournament that we can't take anybody lightly."
Said Sulaimon: "It just put more importance on not looking ahead and focusing on the opponent you have at hand. Right now, we're 100 percent focused on South Dakota State and what we're going to do to try to win that game. It's all about winning and advancing. We'll worry about that game, and we're not going to look ahead and nothing is promised."
Top seeds Kansas (30-4) and North Carolina (28-6) and No. 2 seeds Michigan State (29-5) and Villanova (29-5) will be popular choices to capture the national championship, but Turgeon pointed out that season-long upheaval atop the polls suggests that others can win it all.
"I think you have five, six teams that are really, really good, and everybody's going to say these are the five or six that can win the national championship," he said. "Then you've got teams like us that can get hot and are talented enough to get it done. It is what it is. It's going to be a great tournament for the fans. I just hope we stick around and be a part of it for a long time. We've been shooting for this all year. This is what we've been shooting for. So we're excited and looking forward to it."