Not that long ago, Bowie State men's basketball was a laughingstock, practically forgotten in the long shadows cast by Division I powers Maryland and Georgetown. But by making it to the Division II national semifinals, the Bulldogs erased the stigma and proved the program has changed its course.

"It definitely put us on the map," said Tim Washington, the Bulldogs' senior center and a D.C. native. "We got a lot of write-ups and were on the news. But you're not going to take Maryland's spotlight. They're the number one team [in the area]; they won the championship last year.

"But we were kind of following in their footsteps this year. We got more and more publicity as the season went on, and people started to realize that we weren't a joke. Now people know about Bowie State, so we'll have more people in the stands."

Bowie State, champion of the South Atlantic regional tournament, had never won the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament before, much less advanced far in the NCAA Division II men's basketball tournament.

"A couple of years ago, we were basically in the basement of the CIAA," said Bowie State Coach Luke D'Alessio. "We're just taking it one step at a time because we want to be a top 10 team from now on. That's one of our goals. This was one of the steppingstones that we had.

"Unfortunately, we played a team that has the experience that we lack when it really comes down to it. But it's a big step for our program, there's no question."

And even though the Bulldogs' remarkable 30-win season came to a close in an 84-64 semifinal loss to eight-time national champion Kentucky Wesleyan last Thursday, the lessons gained along the way will make the next journey into the postseason that much easier.

"At this level, honestly, it's a learning experience," D'Alessio said. "We just have to go through this, even the way games are refereed. They're just different. It's our learning curve, what we're learning right now."

D'Alessio, the school's first full-time head coach, has turned the once-abysmal program around in his four years, leaving behind memories of 23 straight losing seasons before he arrived.

Now D'Alessio will continue the pursuit of Division I transfers, which keyed the Bulldogs' resurgence this season and has been the secret to the success of Kentucky Wesleyan, a Division II powerhouse. Although the Panthers lost to Northeastern State in the final on Saturday, they made their sixth straight appearance in the championship game thanks to a pair of Division I transfers -- point guard Marlon Parmer (New Mexico) and 6-11 center Eugene Dabney (Rutgers).

"You need Division I players to play at this level," D'Alessio said. "If you don't have Division I players, you're not going to win anything in Division II. The players are just too good."

The Bulldogs' starting lineup was filled with players who had previous stints at other colleges before arriving at Bowie State. The 6-9 Washington, a third-team all-American, transferred from American University. Front-court mate Jon Smith arrived from Virginia Tech. Perimeter players Stephen Moss-Kelley, Cornelius McMurray and Omarr Smith all played in junior college before D'Alessio brought them to Bowie State.

However, the Bulldogs will have to replace all five of those starters and four other seniors before next season. D'Alessio said Bowie State will have to attract more players from Division I and junior colleges to contend for postseason success.

"With us making this big run, we're going to be involved with players we haven't been involved with in the past," D'Alessio said. "We actually might be more talented next year. The question is if they will jell and have the same heart as this team, which was two or three years in the making.

"We expect to be good from this point on."

D'Alessio's challenge will be persuading Division I talent to come to Bowie.

"I can recruit kids all year long who are very interested in Bowie State," he said. "But once he qualifies for Division I, he can go anyplace. He'll go overseas to play Division I."

Washington said Bowie State basketball is headed in the right direction.

"I think the program is just going to build more and more," Washington said. "It's going to be a Kentucky Wesleyan later on down the road that's going to win some championships. It may be next year. I hope they do. If they do, I'll be there to see it."

Virginia Union's Duan Crockett (3) takes a rebound away from Jon Smith of Bowie State, which advanced to the NCAA Division II national semifinals.Tim Washington, right, and Virginia Union's Duan Crockett go after a loose ball during Bowie State's 72-71 win March 1.