SPOKANE, WASH. — Nearly four months ago and 2,500 miles away from the Spokane Arena, Maryland and South Dakota State crossed paths in Mexico at the Hard Rock Riviera Maya Resort during the Cancun Challenge. Each team won the two games it played there.
While the highly ranked Terps and the mostly overlooked Jackrabbits never met on the makeshift hotel court, they watched each other play, not thinking that when they next met the stakes would be so high and the stage would be so large.
In a game that could be jokingly dubbed the Cancun Challenge championship game, in a city that could be called Spokancun, No. 5 seed Maryland (25-8) and No. 12 seed South Dakota State (26-7) will face each other in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon watched his team's opening game opponent during both of the afternoon sessions in Mexico, including the day after the Terps barely beat Illinois State, a team the Jackrabbits handled rather easily on the road in the United States portion of the tournament.
"They played Illinois State at Illinois State and beat them pretty good and we were lucky to beat Illinois State on a neutral court," Turgeon recalled Thursday. "I was so intrigued with them I watched them live both games for 10, 15 minutes. So they have our attention."
South Dakota State coach Scott Nagy took his team to watch the Terps play at night, but said Thursday, "We weren't really scouting them, we were just watching them. I think it will have zero impact, them watching us or us watching them."
Knowing some might feel the Terps are looking past the Jackrabbits — as they might have done against Minnesota, which beat the Terps in February but lost to South Dakota State by 14 points earlier in the season — to the winner of Friday's game between Cal and Hawaii, Turgeon said that won't be the case.
"If they beat us, it's not because we overlooked them, it's because they outplayed us [Friday]," Turgeon said. "So we'll be ready to go."
Perhaps more than the Terps were a year ago in Columbus, Ohio, in their first NCAA tournament appearance in Turgeon's first four seasons.
Maryland, then a No. 4 seed, might have overlooked a scrappy 13th-seeded Valparaiso team that wouldn't go away until a last-second strip by Turgeon's scrappiest player, walk-on guard Varun Ram, helped preserve a 65-62 victory.
Even against No. 5 seed West Virginia, the Terps now admit they might have been looking at the opportunity of playing No. 1 seed Kentucky in the Sweet 16 rather than focusing completely on the Mountaineers, who won easily, 69-59.
"I think this year we have more experience, so guys know what to expect," senior forward Jake Layman said.
A year ago, Layman was barely a factor in the opening NCAA tournament game, taking just one shot and scoring four points against Valparaiso.
In contrast, then-freshman point guard Melo Trimble and fellow freshman Jared Nickens carried the Terps, each scoring 14 points.
Trimble kept Maryland close in the second game as well, finishing with 15 points before literally getting knocked out.
Nickens said Thursday that he didn't get caught up in the notion of playing in his first NCAA tournament game.
"I was just enjoying the moment," Nickens said. "Being that I have been here before, I know how serious it is. It's win or go home. Last year, I didn't really know."
Said Trimble: "The difference [this year] is that we're going in thinking every game is going to be a tough game, even the first game. We can't look ahead like we did last year with Kentucky."
A year ago, the Terps tried to rely on the NCAA tournament experience that then-senior Dez Wells gained as a freshman at Xavier. It wasn't enough against West Virginia.
With Trimble in and out of the game at a key juncture after getting elbowed in the head on a hard screen — and later kicked in the head inadvertently by teammate Damonte Dodd — Wells struggled with nine points and eight turnovers.
This year, the Terps are counting on senior guard Rasheed Sulaimon, who averaged better than 13 points in five NCAA tournament games with Duke, scoring 20 or more twice.
"I think it's very important," Layman said of Sulaimon's experience. "And I think the main point that he's telling the guys going into this tournament is to take it one game at a time. You can't overlook any teams."
Said Sulaimon, who helped Duke reach the Elite 8 as a freshman and then was part of a team that lost to 13th-seeded Mercer as a sophomore, "They call it March Madness for a reason. Any given game could be an upset, any given game you can lose."
Redshirt junior forward Robert Carter Jr. and freshman center Diamond Stone will both be making their NCAA tournament debuts on Friday.
Carter, who played his first two years at Georgia Tech, said Thursday "I've been thinking about moment for my whole life," but doesn't seem too stressed by the circumstance of his much-awaited NCAA tournament debut.
Stone has never seemed to shy away from the moment. In his first Big Ten Conference game, he scored a school freshman record 39 points against Penn State. In his first Big Ten tournament game, he had 23 against Nebraska. In each case, he said it was "just another game."
Even Stone, who along with Trimble has been rumored to be turning pro after the season, knows this is a little bit bigger.
"It's win or go home," he said. "And we don't want to go home."