- The Washington Times - Monday, March 16, 2009

The twisting journey of the Maryland men’s basketball team took a sharp turn in the right direction Sunday when the Terrapins earned one of the 34 at-large invitations to play in the NCAA tournament.

Considered a long shot to make it heading into their conference tournament, Terps players and coaches gathered at Comcast Center and sweated out the selections through about half the telecast before learning they are seeded 10th in the West region and will play a first-round game against seventh-seeded California on Thursday in Kansas City, Mo.

“It’s never easy,” Maryland coach Gary Williams said. “When you look at the teams that are left out every year, it’s incredible. … If you’re in a situation like ours where it wasn’t completely smooth during the year, you’re gonna feel like - and the players are gonna feel like - you’re in and out of the tournament at various times.

“What you have to do is maintain that ability to focus on the next game and not listen to everything you hear or read or whatever, and be able to still have hope that you can make it. And when that happens is when you erupt.”

The Terps definitely erupted. Although reporters were not allowed access to the viewing, the whoops and hollers could be clearly heard through the wall separating the players lounge from the media room.

“Once I saw our name up there, I threw the clipboard down and I jumped up and started giving hugs to everybody,” said forward Dave Neal, the only senior on the team and the loudest celebrant, according to Williams.

Meanwhile, about 10 miles away in Northwest Washington, American University threw a big party, open to all, to celebrate the bid that everyone knew was coming. The Eagles were guaranteed a ticket to the NCAA tournament for a second straight year after beating Holy Cross in the Patriot League tournament championship game on Friday.

About 250 fans, plus the pep band and cheerleaders, showed up. The players filed in about 15 minutes before the start of the telecast to learn whom and where they would play.

AU, seeded 14th in the East region, will have a relatively short trip to Philadelphia. That’s the good news. The bad news for the Eagles is that they will play what amounts to a road game Thursday against third-seeded Villanova, whose campus is located just outside of Philly.

Overall, it was a big day for the Big East Conference as three of its members gained No. 1 seeds in the tournament, including top-seeded Louisville, which won the Big East tournament on Saturday night and will start in the Midwest Region. Pittsburgh (East) and Connecticut (West) also hail from the Big East, and will be joined as a No. 1 seed by the North Carolina from the Atlantic Coast Conference at the top of the brackets. If there was a surprise, it came when Connecticut gained a top spot at the expense of Memphis, which ended up as a No. 2 seed despite riding a 25-game winning streak.

Michigan also made the tournament, as a 10th seed, earning a first-round matchup against Clemson. The Wolverines hadn’t qualified for the NCAA tournament since 1998, but they had a large crowd and television cameras on hand to watch them squirm during the CBS selection show. They did not get called until the final region, the South, was listed. Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin were among the last schools chosen from the at-large pool.

The Terps’ good news was a welcome respite for Williams, who has weathered criticism and withstood a public dust-up with his athletic department over a recruiting issue. He was asked whether the bid represented vindication not just for the players, who were picked by the coaches to finish seventh out of 12 ACC teams in a preseason poll, but also for himself.

“It’s not about that,” he said, “This is about the Maryland basketball team winning and getting into the NCAA Tournament.”

Just nine days ago, when they lost their regular season finale to Atlantic Coast Conference weakling Virginia, the Terps (20-13) appeared to be close to settling for the consolation prize, another bid to the NIT, the National Invitational Tournament. The overwhelming consensus was that Maryland had to win at least two games in the ACC tournament to capture the attention of the 10-member NCAA selection committee. Williams even had T-shirts made up that read, “Win Two.”

Maryland did exactly that, beating North Carolina State on Thursday and upsetting eighth-ranked Wake Forest on Friday before losing to No. 9 Duke on Saturday in a tournament semifinal.

Even though things looked positive, suspense still lingered throughout the day.

“I knew that several good teams weren’t going to make the NCAA Tournament,” said Williams, who withstood steady criticism all season as his team performed to the modest expectation level many had predicted. “Even though most of my friends told me we were in, you never assume anything till you’re there.”

There was no such drama for American. The Eagles carry a 24-7 record into the NCAA tournament. They have won 13 straight games, including 19 of their last 20. AU is the only local program making its second straight appearance. Last year, the Eagles went to the tournament for the first time in school history.

Senior guard Garrison Carr said he thought AU might get a better seed.

“This is our second year in a row and I was expecting maybe to go higher because we had a lot of wins this season and have a long winning streak going right now,” he said. “But I’m just glad we’re in.

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