- The Washington Times - Friday, March 22, 2002

SYRACUSE, N.Y. There were a few hundred fans sitting courtside as Maryland went through its shootaround yesterday afternoon inside the Carrier Dome.

The spectators oohed and aahed as the Terrapins demonstrated their half-court shooting skills. Drew Nicholas made five from the center circle, and ballboys finally had to take the basketball from the giddy guard before he would leave the floor.

The Terps clearly are the celebrities of the East Region. Dozens of wide-eyed autograph seekers hung over a low tunnel as the players headed toward the locker room.

The Terps are receiving the star treatment usually reserved for hallowed programs like Duke and Kentucky because they are expected to make Syracuse their last stop before next weekend's Final Four in Atlanta.

"You'd like to think that this team is the team good enough to get there," coach Gary Williams said. "But at the same time, we still have to play games. As long as there are still games to play, you reserve judgment on the team."

The Terps are the top seed in the region and will find out within the next three days if they are good enough to return to college basketball's showcase. Maryland (28-4) will meet No.4 Kentucky (22-9) tonight in the second semifinal. The winner will face No.2 Connecticut or No.11 Southern Illinois Sunday for a trip to the Final Four.

It has been a surprisingly smooth ride to this point for Maryland, which has faced little adversity this season and can set a record of 29 victories in a season tonight. The Terps recorded their best regular season in history before cruising past Siena in the first round of the NCAA and throttling Wisconsin by 30 in the second round.

Last year Maryland lost five of six games late in the regular season before regrouping in March.

"We had a lot to prove last year," Williams said. "We had that swoon there in February, but we always thought we were good. We just wanted to prove it. That took away the nervousness or whatever. This year we have the experience of being there, so we are doing everything we can to win each game because we want to go back to the Final Four."

The Wildcats are a wild card in the NCAA tournament. After a turbulent regular season, including an upset loss to South Carolina in the first round of the SEC tournament, Kentucky has looked strong against modest competition. The Wildcats easily handled Valparaiso in the first round before riding 41 points from Tayshaun Prince to an 87-82 victory over Tulsa to earn a trip to snowy Syracuse.

Prince, a 6-foot-9, 215-pound senior who averages 17.5 points, is one of the few advantages the Wildcats have over the Terps. The senior, who plays both forward spots, made six of eight 3-pointers while scoring his career high against Tulsa. Small forward Byron Mouton likely will begin covering Prince, and Chris Wilcox will pick up the slender forward in the post.

"We have to try to be physical with him because it doesn't seem like he likes a real physical game," Maryland's Tahj Holden said. "He's 6-9, but he's also like 210 pounds. We'll try to be physical. We have Mouton who is one of the most physical guys on our team. If he plays the four [power forward], Chris and I are going to try to be physical."

Outside of Prince, Kentucky's only big offensive threat is shooting guard Keith Bogans, a junior from DeMatha High School who is averaging 20.0 points in the NCAA tournament after a forgettable regular season.

"Maryland is probably the most talented team we have faced so far," said Bogans, who is averaging 11.5 points. "They have Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter, and Chris Wilcox, and Steve Blake taking care of the ball. They are right up there with Duke."

While the Wildcats rely on Prince and Bogans, the Terps bring a deep array of firepower starting with All-American Dixon, who led the NCAA tournament in scoring coming into the Sweet 16. Dixon, who will match up with Bogans, scored 29 points in each of Maryland's tournament games. The senior and ACC player of the year is shooting 56 percent and 60 percent from 3-point range in the tournament.

Dixon expects an uptempo game that could be decided on rebounds.

"They have a lot of pressure and go to the offensive boards hard," said Dixon, who became Maryland's all-time scoring leader against Wisconsin. "Our job is to contest shots and hold them to one shot and get out on transition."

The Wildcats are deep with 10 players who average at least 14 minutes a game, but they can't match the quality of Maryland reserves Ryan Randle, Holden and sharpshooting Nicholas. The Terps' key player may be Wilcox, who had been inconsistent recently before dominating Wisconsin with 18 points and seven rebounds.

It is odd to see the storied program of Kentucky in an underdog role. Wildcats coach Tubby Smith feels his team will have to play its best game of the season to have a chance against Maryland. Some of his players look at a 95-92 overtime loss to top-ranked Duke in December as proof that they can compete with this season's top teams.

Maryland will arrive at the Carrier Dome tonight confident that it is a powerhouse ready to take one more step toward another Final Four.

"We know we are a good team," said Williams, in a relaxed mood in the locker room yesterday. "We've earned the right to know we are a good team without being cocky. If somebody beats us, they know they beat a good team."

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