- The Washington Times - Monday, March 13, 2000

CHARLOTTE, N.C. Strength of schedule came through for Maryland's basketball team yesterday, convincing the NCAA tournament selection committee to award the 20th-ranked Terps a No. 3 seed.

Maryland (24-9) faces 14th-seeded Iona in Minneapolis on Thursday. The Terps were the only local team named to the 64-team field. The last time the area had just one representative was 1991-92 when only Georgetown went.

Regionally, Virginia became the first ACC team ever to finish above .500 in league play and be snubbed for an at-large bid.

Maryland, this weekend having reached its first ACC title game under 11th-year coach Gary Williams, now attempts to capture Williams' first career appearance in an NCAA regional title game.

"We got Coach over [the ACC tournament] hump," sophomore guard Juan Dixon said. "Hopefully we can get him to the Elite Eight. That would be a heck of an accomplishment for a team that everybody counted out at the beginning of the year."

Indeed, Maryland wasn't even forecast to finish third in the conference by many observers. The Terps were picked fourth after losing four starters from last season's 28-6 squad, a No. 2 seed that lost to St. John's in the regional semifinals.

Few believed this Maryland team could reach a third straight Sweet 16 and a fifth in the past seven seasons. Instead, the young Terps have positioned themselves to do it, by playing well in a solid non-conference schedule and finishing the season with 13 wins in their final 17 games.

Maryland's non-league opponents included tournament invitees Temple (a loss), Illinois (a win) and Kentucky twice (a split). The Terps also played Tulane, Notre Dame, Iowa and George Washington.

Maryland ranked No. 15 in the Ratings Percentage Index released yesterday by the NCAA, while the Terps' strength of schedule ranked No. 6. Consequently, Williams wasn't surprised by the seeding.

"I thought we were a No. 3 seed," Williams said. "Strength of schedule means something."

One could argue pro or con about Maryland's path to what would be its first-ever Final Four. It starts with Iona, champion of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, which is coached by former Washington Bullets center Jeff Ruland.

After the Gaels, the Terps would face sixth-seeded UCLA or 11th-seeded Ball State. UCLA, after playing far below its potential this season, has played well since the return of JaRon Rush. The Bruins won at then-No. 1 Stanford on March 4.

"It looks like this year everybody has to play somebody pretty decent in the second round," Williams said. "That's just college basketball nowadays. Things have gotten pretty close."

If Maryland beats UCLA, the Terps likely would face No. 2 seed Iowa State, which won the Big 12's regular-season title and league tournament. The seventh-ranked Cyclones are talented and hot, but they rely on one player, power forward Marcus Fizer.

The final hurdle to the Final Four likely would be top-seeded, fifth-ranked Michigan State, although the Spartans, national semifinalists a year ago, probably would have to beat Kentucky or Syracuse, two traditional powers, to reach the Elite Eight.

Williams, asked if he was excited to take another crack at the Elite Eight himself, replied: "Yeah, but I'm proud of going to four Sweet 16s [at Maryland]. Obviously you want to win that next game, like we wanted to win down here."

The ACC received just three bids for the second season in a row, and North Carolina was only a No. 8 seed. The Cavaliers were snubbed despite beating Carolina twice during the regular season and Maryland once.

Locally, Georgetown and George Washington are strong contenders to reach the NIT.

"People don't understand this: You want to see a lot of teams go," Williams said. "You fight during the year for position in the press and all that, but when it's all said and done, you want as many teams as possible to be there."

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