Maryland can clinch a tie for the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season title tonight by beating seventh-place Wake Forest in Cole Field House (8 p.m., no TV) and the game is sold out.
But more is at stake for Lefty Driesell's Terrapins tonight than the title, even though a first-place finish will mean both top seeding for the ACC tournament and a virtually automatic NCAA bid.
A win for the Terps (9-3, 19-5 overall) over the Deacons (4-8, 13-11) will complete one phase of what amounts to a Cinderella story for a team picked to finish sixth in the conference before the season.
If Maryland wins, a second-place North Carolina (8-4) can do no better than tie for first. If the two tie, Maryland gets the top seed in the tournament based on its two wins over Carolina.
The Terps probably will have to face the Deacons without point guard Reggie Jackson. The 6-foot-4 junior suffered a bruised thigh in practice Monday and it had not responded to treatment as of yesterday, when Jackson did not practice.
"It's still very sore," said trainer Rod Martin. "He's very doubtful."
Doubtful was the word used when Driesell told people before the season that his team would "be there," when the big games started. He has proved to be a prophet.
"I told y'all before the season that anything can happen in this league, that anyone can finish first and anyone can finish last," Driesell said yesterday. "Maybe now you'll believe me. You can never predict this league."
This season has certainly been testimony to that fact. Even North Carolina's Dean Smith admitted over the weekend tha he has been surprised by this year's ACC race.
"If you had told me Virginia would be 7-6 at this point beore the season started I would have been surprised," Smith said. "But then again I'm surprised Duke has the record (6-6) it has. And how many people would have predicted that Maryland would be 9-3 at this point?
"That's why we play the games. That's what makes this fun."
For Driesell, this season has been fun. For Terry Holland of Virginia (7-6, 18-8) and Bill Foster of Duke, (6-6, 18-7) it has been nightmarish. For Smith (8-4, 19-5) it has had ups and downs with the ups coming as the season winds down. For Bill Foster of Clemson (8-5, 18-l) and Norman Sloan of N.C. State (7-5, 18-6) it has been gratifying. For Carl Tacy of Wake Forest, it has been exasperating. For Dwane Morrison of Georgia Tech (1-13, 7-17) it has been brutal.
Foster of Duke may have summed it up best Saturday when he was asked about his team's inconsistent play the last month.
"Besides De Paul (23-0), what has been consistent in college basketball this season?" Foster said."Today we're happy, so is Clemson, so is Wake. Wednesday it can all change again."
Certainly the most surprising development in the conference has been the rebirth of Maryland. As one magazine writer noted last week, "Lefty Was as close to demise a year ago as any big-name coach in the country. He was consistently doing poorly in the league; his players were transferring almost every year and he had just had a bad recruiting year."
Now, Driesell is about to enter the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1975 and Maryland appears to be on the verge of an excellent recruiting year.
In the meantime, Duke and Virginia, both picked as virtual shoo-ins for the NCAA, are going to the NIT unless one surprises and wins the ACC tournament.
"I didn't know what this season would be like, I didn't really know how good we would be," said UVA's Jeff Lamp after the Cavaliers' embarrassing 68-51 loss at North Carolina last weekend. "But I did expect us to have a better record than last year." UVA was 18-8 in the regular season a year ago.
Some say the Cavaliers were overrated because people forgot to account for the fact that Ralph Sampson, great player that he is, is just a freshman. f
But Sampson's inexperience does not appear to be the problem at UVA. He has played well. The problem is that Lamp, Lee Raker, Jeff Jones and Mike Owens, the four returning starters, have not played as well as they did a year ago. If they were playing as they did then, Virginia would not be 18-8.