KANSAS CITY, Mo. | Dino Gregory contended with all the nerves an NCAA tournament newcomer might experience this week.
The Maryland sophomore, who long figured the national title from earlier this decade in the trophy case would ensure postseason trips, was finally off to a Thursday afternoon date with California in the first round of the West regional.
Still, he was overwhelmed, so he sought out even-keel junior Landon Milbourne as the 10th-seeded Terrapins (20-13) prepared for their trip to Sprint Center to play the seventh-seeded Golden Bears (22-10).
”I told him it’s crazy,” Gregory said. “This is the first time I’m playing in the NCAA tournament. He says, ‘Me too.’ ”
Milbourne is one of only four holdovers from the Terps’ 2007 NCAA tournament team and the only one not to appear in those games against Davidson and Butler as Maryland departed in the second round in Buffalo, N.Y.
The Terps weren’t far removed from a seven-game winning streak at the time, but Milbourne remained taciturn and in the background as that team made its charge. He sat in the locker room in Buffalo that weekend, wearing large headphones and remaining completely overlooked.
But Milbourne, while reserved, is observant. He picked up on the perks and hoopla associated with the NCAA tournament, as well as the excitement of those who got to play. And while it was an experience, it didn’t seem to count as a postseason trip for him.
“Anytime a guy doesn’t get a chance to participate but sees it, hopefully there is a desire to do that,” coach Gary Williams said. “If you’re a college basketball player and you can play in the NCAA tournament, that’s the ultimate.”
If Maryland has anyone to thank for its adventure this month, it might be Milbourne as much as anyone else.
The Terps entered the season with an unconventional roster, long on perimeter options and short on post players. So Milbourne, who played in the paint in high school, agreed to move inside to act as an undersize power forward.
At times, he encountered unpleasant matchups. At others, he thrived. But all along, Milbourne wanted to fill a void and continue to harbor hopes of making his own tournament debut.
“People don’t realize how tough he is,” guard Greivis Vasquez said. “He plays hard every time. Sometimes later in the season he couldn’t score 20 points a game, but he gave us rebounds, blocks, defense, all that type of stuff. It really helped us win games. I know he’s hungry.”
So too are the rest of the Terps, who were visibly relieved when the will-they-or-won’t-they tournament talk dissipated after Sunday’s selection announcement. Yet attention quickly turned to validating the selection.
Milbourne has a chance to recover from a sluggish finish to the season. He has reached double figures just once in the last six games but did snag a career-high 11 rebounds in the defeat of Wake Forest to help clinch Maryland’s NCAA berth - and his own debut in the preferred postseason tournament.
“It’s not really a new feeling because I pretty much know how it goes now,” Milbourne said. “Now it’s just a point of me getting it through to my teammates that it’s a big deal that we made it, but it’s over with now. Now we have to concentrate on getting wins because it’s a brand new season. I don’t want to seem like I’m too excited to be here.”
There’s no doubt he is, though. Sophomore guard Cliff Tucker said Milbourne has joked with everyone that this is really his first NCAA tournament appearance. Yet at the same time, Milbourne has remained the studious presence who is wryly aware of all that is going on around him.
The freshman who couldn’t be bothered with watching other games in Buffalo two years ago is now the steady presence who helps counteract Vasquez’s zaniness and Dave Neal’s goofiness. Suddenly, he’s the closest thing to a grown-up in the locker room but not so serious he isn’t savoring this chance.
“It does seem a little crazy, but I guess that just comes with experience,” Milbourne said. “I haven’t been here before, but at the same time I played a lot of games. I know how Coach reacts. I know how he takes things and doesn’t want guys to get too excited. We still have to keep the big picture in mind and know we have to come here and get wins.”
After all, Milbourne knows he’ll get only two chances to make a great first impression in the NCAA tournament.