Tom Fields, director of the Terrapin Club, Maryland's athletic fund-raising unit, looked around in the Grand Central Station atmosphere of Cole Field House and smiled.
"It hasn't been like this around here in years," he said. "Everyone on this campus is so excited. I haven't seen this building electric the way it was Saturday (when Maryland routed Duke, 101-82) in a long time."
Eleventh-ranked North Carolina will experience that electricity in a game tonight that will turn the ACC into a two-team race or a one-team runaway (WJLA-TV-7, 9 p.m.)
If the Terps (16-3 in all games, 8-1 in the ACC) beat the Tar Heels (16-4, 6-3) the ACC regular-season race is all but over. Maryland would have a three-game lead with four games to play.
If Carolina wins, however, the lead would be narrowed to one game and the Tar Heels would pose a real threat to Coach Lefty Driesell's aspiration for his second regular-season conference title. In his previous 10 years in College Park, only Driesell's 1974-75 season club has won that title.
Falling into the hard-to-believe-but-true category is this: the one thing Driesell's team must guard against is overconfidence.
"I hope the players don't think too much about the fact that we beat them down there (92-86) because that doesn't really matter now," Driesell said yesterday. "I certainly don't expect them to come in here and roll over for us."
The Tar Heels roll over for no one. Since losing to Maryland three weeks ago they have won six straight, despite losing freshman James Worthy with a broken leg in that Maryland game.
But the fact remains that seventh-ranked Maryland has established itself as the bona fide favorite to win the ACC regular-season championship. iAnd yesterday, pennant fever was rampant in College Park.
"Don't forget that none of the students here now were here when John Lucas and all them were here," said sophomore Chris Warner as he waited in line at the Student Union's Roy Rogers. "Winning like this is a new experience for all of us. And what makes it even better is the fact that no one expected it this year."
"You can tell everyone's real happy," said forward Albert King. "Students keep coming up to us to tell us what a great job we're doing and to keep it up. It's a nice feeling after two years of losing."
The last time the Terps beat North Carolina in College Park, King was a high school freshman. That was 1974 -- six games ago -- the last year of the Tom McMillen-Len Elmore era at Maryland.
Even in 1975, when the Terps won the regular season title with a sweep of Tobacco Road, the Tar Heels managed to win up here when a reserve named Mickey Bell nailed two free throws down the stretch to preserve a 69-66 Carolina win.
"I've talked to the players about the fact that we haven't beaten them here in several years," Driesell said. "I'll undoubtedly mention it to them again before the game."
Reminding this team of previous failures -- the nine-game losing streak to Carolina, the five-game losing string to Virginia -- is a tactic Driesell has used successfully this season and he obviously doesn't intend to change now.
Driesell was as loose 24 hours before a Carolina game as anyone could remember him being in years. When a reporter asked at a press conference if this team was his smartest, Driesell laughed.
"I ain't going to say that because then everyone will say my other teams were stupid," he said. "When you're winning everyone starts saying you're smart and you're doing a good coaching job.
"Then if you start losing your team's stupid and you're doing a lousy coaching job. I'm not doing anything different this year than the last 25. We're just playing good, smart basketball."
The Terps will have to play that kind of ball tonight if they are to beat Dean Smith's troops. Carolina is led by forwards Al Wood (18.6 average) and Mike O'Koren (14.4). Even without Worthy they are deep and talented.
Still, since Worthy's injury, Smith has shown a penchant to go to his four-corner delay offense very quickly once his team gets ahead. Driesell said he wouldn't be surprised if Carolina tried to take the air out of the ball early as it did last year at Duke when it finished the first half trailing 7-0.
"Duke stayed back when they did that," Driesell said. "We won't do that. We'll get after them, I guarantee you that."
So far this season Driesell has come through on every guarantee he has made. Once again he is the king of College Park.
Perhaps indicative of how far the Terps have come in six weeks was yesterday's press conference. Driesell was surrounded for more than an hour by TV and radio men with microphones, and newspaper people with pens and pads. Six weeks ago, at his first press conference, five reporters showed up.
"And those guys just came to eat pizza," Driesell told his rapt audience. Everyone broke up. These days, when Lefty talks, people listen.
Greg Manning has made his last seven shots and is now shooting 65.2 percent from the field and 90 percent from the foul line, leading the ACC in both categories . . . Buck Williams is shooting 63 percent from the floor, King 56 percent . . . Carolina's Dave Colescott is questionable with a bad ankle and backup center Rich Yonakor is fighting the flu . . . Senior John Virgil has been starting in Worthy's place -- at a guard spot -- with Wood moving back to forward . . . Terps play at Clemson Saturday.
In other area games tonight: George Mason is at William and Mary at 8 p.m. and UDC is at Southeastern, also at 8 p.m. In the Mason-W&M contest, Patriot star junior forward Andre Gaddy should go over the 1,000-point mark for his career. He has 997 points thus far.