COLLEGE PARK — On the front steps of Xfinity Center, Steve Buckner was asked about the most enduring memories of his Maryland men's basketball fandom. He had over six decades to consider.
"Happy or sad?" the Sykesville resident deadpanned Monday.
His wife, Kathy, and friends Joanne and Jared Mandell of Owings Mills laughed. The night before, the Terps had defeated Hawaii in the NCAA tournament to advance to their first Sweet 16 in 13 years. It was easier to remember the bad times now that the good seemed so fresh and hard earned.
Buckner cried after Maryland's 2002 national title, but the Terps' past 13 seasons had been enough to test even the most die-hard fans' devotion. Which is why, when the foursome happened upon a welcome-back rally for Maryland on their way to the women's team's NCAA tournament game against Washington, they posed for photos with players and offered their congratulations. After such a long wait, and with such a strong test to come, they wanted at least this happy memory.
On Thursday night, the fifth-seeded Terps will face Kansas, the No. 1 overall seed in the 68-team tournament field, in Louisville, Ky., with the victor moving on to the Elite Eight and the brink of the national semifinals. It has been an uneven season for Maryland, a preseason top-five team with the potential to dazzle and disappoint, often in the course of one game. But before a national TV audience, the Terps can extend their season, and maybe prove themselves worthy of the hype and hope so many fans held for them.
"When we got back, there's a lot of people out there cheering for us, just happy that we all made it to the Sweet 16 and just encouraging us to go farther," junior forward Robert Carter Jr. said after returning from Spokane, Wash., site of the team's first- and second-round wins. "You definitely can sense that people are watching and everybody knows we're in the Sweet 16. We're just going to continue to go out there and focus and keep trying to advance."
Maryland has waited for a second weekend of March Madness since 2003, when the 2002 championship team's remaining stalwarts — Steve Blake and Drew Nicholas, most notably — fell short of a third straight Final Four appearance with a Sweet 16 loss to Michigan State.
Former coach Gary Williams never again put together a team that reached such heights. His lone Atlantic Coast Conference tournament-winning squad lost in the round of 32 in 2004. In 2007 and 2009, the Terps again won in the NCAA tournament's first round, but only the first round.
Williams' 2009-10 ACC regular-season co-champions, led by ACC Player of the Year Greivis Vasquez, also were knocked out in the second round after Michigan State's Korie Lucious hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer. "The worst part was not that the guy made the 3," Buckner said, "but the pass [to him] went to the wrong guy."
After Mark Turgeon took over as coach following Williams' retirement in May 2011, it took until his fourth season for Maryland to reach the tournament. That appearance, too, ended in misery: Against West Virginia, the Terps lost star freshman guard Melo Trimble to a concussion, and then their fifth straight round-of-32 game.
"I had no idea it had been that long until after the game," Turgeon, in a radio interview Tuesday, said of the program's breakthrough win against Hawaii. "I don't really get into that stuff. I just know that we wanted to win the game and be in the Sweet 16. It's a big step from the first and second round to the Sweet 16. The cream rises, and the best teams are there."
As Maryland's national profile has grown, so has the buzz around the program. Early in the win over the Rainbow Warriors, freshman center Diamond Stone was trending nationally on Twitter. A postgame video of the Terps pretending to give senior guard Rasheed Sulaimon the silent treatment in the locker room, only to mob him in an ecstatic celebration, went viral Sunday night. The team's 15-second clip had been retweeted nearly 2,500 times and shared on Facebook nearly 2,000 times as of Wednesday afternoon.
Maryland's postseason run has been so exhilarating for some students, even the end of spring break became palatable. When he returned to school Monday after a restful week off, Jordan Katz of Columbia, a freshman journalism major and longtime Terps fan, said he was a "lot more excited" than he otherwise would have been.
"Sunday morning, I was like, 'Aw, great, spring break's over,' " he said. And now? " 'All right, I'm back on campus of the team that's in the Sweet 16!' It definitely helps the mood on campus knowing that, 'Hey, we have a good sports team.' "
What happens next is anyone's guess. The Terps started the season as favorites to reach the Final Four in Houston. They enter the South region semifinals as the lowest-seeded team in Louisville. But at least they're finally there, after all these years of waiting.
"It was real important to me that we beat Hawaii," Turgeon said Tuesday in College Park. "I really wanted our guys to experience this. The first and second rounds are nice. It's fun, it's great, but the Sweet 16 of course takes it to another level."
He added: "And, of course, the Final Four takes it to an entirely different level."