- The Washington Times - Friday, March 9, 2001

ATLANTA Gary Williams bristled at the notion.

"How can we be the favorite if we're the No. 3 seed?" the Maryland coach asked yesterday after his team finished its shootaround in preparation for the ACC tournament at the Georgia Dome.

It could be because the No. 11 Terps are the hottest team in the league right now, scorching ranked opponents at an alarming rate.

It could be because top-seeded North Carolina is sputtering with three losses in its last five games, and second-seeded Duke has no bench or inside threat after center Carlos Boozer broke a bone in his right foot while Maryland was stomping the Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium last week.

It could be because of all that and the fact that the tournament will occur outside North Carolina for the first time in 12 seasons, meaning the Tar Heels and Blue Devils have no home-state advantage.

"I think [Maryland is] the best team playing today," said Wake Forest coach Dave Odom, whose 22nd-ranked and sixth-seeded Demon Deacons will face the Terps in a tournament quarterfinal at 9:30 tonight. Maryland hasn't won the tournament since 1984.

Williams was in a relaxed mood yesterday upon arriving at the Georgia Dome. While Odom was talking to a contingent of reporters in the stands behind one basket, the Maryland coach sneaked up the stairs as if to eavesdrop.

"I didn't get your call the one where you are supposed to thank me for getting you on a roll," Odom said jokingly. "I do feel responsible for how they're playing, but I get no credit."

The Terps (20-9, 10-6 ACC) haven't been sneaking up on anybody lately, starting with that 73-57 dismissal of the Deacons (19-9, 8-8) on Feb. 17 in Winston-Salem. Maryland, which bottomed out three days earlier by losing for the fifth time in six games to lowly Florida State, swept the regular-season series with Wake Forest.

Next Maryland pounded N.C. State by 29 before outmuscling Oklahoma, ranked 16th; shocked No. 3 Duke on the road; and blasted 12th-ranked Virginia on Saturday 102-67.

All-ACC shooting guard Juan Dixon has led the resurgence, averaging 25.5 points over the last four games. Center Lonny Baxter is averaging 15.2 points and shooting 68 percent over the same period and, most importantly, staying out of foul trouble. Power forward Terence Morris has found his role as a dominant rebounder and strong defender. The bench goes 10 deep and is one of the best in the country now that reserve point guard Drew Nicholas and forwards Danny Miller and Tahj Holden have rebounded from personal slumps.

"I would rather be the hot team than a team that's struggling," said Williams, scoffing at the idea of his players feeling added pressure because of the recent success. "With what we've gone through, that's not pressure. Pressure was trying to win a game after we lost to Florida State."

Meanwhile, Wake Forest is struggling. The Demon Deacons have lost eight of their last 15 after starting the season 12-0 and being ranked as high as fourth. Now Odom's team could find itself on the dreaded NCAA tournament bubble with a loss.

The Demon Deacons play a pounding European style with 6-foot-9, 270-pound Spanish center Rafael Vidaurreta and 6-9, 245-pound forward Darius Songaila, both seniors. But the Terps have become more capable of grinding lately with Baxter, center Mike Mardesich and a healthy Holden making foes pay for coming in the paint.

"We know the wear and tear of the tournament," said Nicholas, whose team reached the finals before losing to Duke last season. "It gets exhausting playing three games in three days. You have to be focused mentally and physically. I think we've done a good job keeping our focus. I think we're ready to go."

Note Maryland practiced at Georgia State in downtown Atlanta yesterday morning before its afternoon shootaround. Georgia State is coached by Lefty Driesell, who led the '84 Terps to the ACC title and will take his current team into the NCAAs after winning the Trans America Athletic Conference tournament.

Driesell and Williams chatted during the session, and later Williams explained to his team what the Lefthander meant to Maryland in his 17 seasons in College Park: "He's the guy that made basketball exciting at Maryland."


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