- The Washington Times - Monday, November 21, 2005

The Maryland basketball team has been eager to go to Hawaii for months. And with that trip to the Maui Invitational finally here, it only would make sense the Terrapins are looking forward to getting in a little sightseeing and some time at the beach.

That assumption would be wrong — at least until after the No. 24 Terps (1-0) are finished playing three grueling games in as many days.

“We’re out there for business,” guard Chris McCray said. “I’m not going out there for vacation.”

McCray would rather help Maryland win a few games in what many analysts have dubbed the greatest in-season tournament in the sport’s history. Six of the tournament’s eight teams have won national titles, all since 1988, and the group accounts for six of the last 12 NCAA championships. Five of the schools have reached the Final Four since 2001.

Those figures don’t include No. 9 Gonzaga, Maryland’s opponent this afternoon and a consistent NCAA tournament visitor in recent years. The Bulldogs, led by preseason All-American Adam Morrison, lost only one starter and might have their best team ever, a strong statement for a team that is 159-37 in coach Mark Few’s six seasons.

If the Terps win today, they likely would face No. 4 Michigan State, which reached the Final Four last year but lost its season opener Saturday at Hawaii, in tomorrow’s semifinals. The Spartans meet tournament host Chaminade in today’s first round.

No. 3 Connecticut, No. 10 Arizona, Kansas and Arkansas lurk on the other half of the draw, and Maryland is certain to play one of them Wednesday.

“We’re going to have to play great to win some games over there, just like everybody else,” Maryland coach Gary Williams said. “Whoever doesn’t play well isn’t going to win.”

Just about any team other than Chaminade could get on a roll this week, though nearly every team has some issues. Connecticut doesn’t have a point guard thanks to Marcus Williams’ suspension.

Arizona lost a pair of starters to the NBA. Maryland and Arkansas missed the NCAA tournament last year. Kansas brings back only one starter.

Those questions only add to the promise and unpredictability of the event, something many teams wish to avoid early in the season. Yet instead of staying at home and blowing out bad teams in guarantee games, each program in the field is gambling the reward of playing such a tough tournament — both from a team development standpoint and from the perspective of impressing the NCAA tournament selection committee in March — is worth the risk of being one of the four teams to leave Maui with two losses.

“I’ve always been of the opinion that you learn from playing the best competition you can play, and you’re going to be a better team in February by playing tough teams,” Arizona coach Lute Olson said earlier this month. “I’d rather lose one by one or two rather than win one by 40 because you don’t learn anything from a 40-point win.”

There will be few blowouts in paradise this week, which can only boost the confidence of a team that isn’t coming off the best of seasons. The Terps already have won their season opener, a 111-85 rout of Fairleigh Dickinson, and are eager to prove themselves even before venturing deep into their ACC schedule in a few months.

“We’re not looking at it in terms of winning a couple games or winning one game and seeing where we are at,” center Will Bowers said. “We’re going in there thinking we have just as good a chance as anybody else. No one else has played any games and really shown how good a team they are.

“They’ll have the same record as us — 1-0, 2-0 — and not played any ranked teams. As far as we’re concerned, we’re equal with everyone.”

And if they’re not? There will be time to fix deficiencies that no doubt will be exposed this week. The Terps still must improve their defense and determine how minutes will be allocated in their rotation, particularly among the point guards.

Picking up two or three victories would be ideal for the Terps, but it’s early enough in the season that wins aren’t paramount.

“Whatever happens, we’re not going to go away,” Williams said.

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