It is undoubtedly the biggest game in the long and undistinguished history of basketball at the University of Richmond.

More than 9,000 Spider fans will fill Robbins Center at 7:30 tonight to see their surprising team battle the big time of college basketball, as represented by Maryland and its coach, Lefty Driesell.

So what if this is only a first-round game in the National Invitation Tournament? So what if Maryland hardly is a power this year? So what if Richmond's coach admits the school's ability to sell tickets was as important as his team's 18-10 record in obtaining the Spiders' first postseason bid?

Because basketball mediocrity has been the norm for years, this one sign of progress is all the Richmond faithful need to go slightly bonkers. And the response of Maryland fans? That school sold 337 of its alloted 3,000 seats.

"Everywhere you look, basketball is the story," Richmond Coach Dick Tarrant said. "There is a lot of electricity around here. Before the season, no one expected this to happen and, now, to get their first postseason tournament bid, the fans are loving it. And they should, they've waited 70 years for this to happen."

At Richmond, anything close to a .500 season has been toasted, not roasted. The Spiders were barely over .500 the last two years, had two winning seasons in the early 1970s and none in the 1960s. This year's mark is their best in 27 years.

"At 18-10, I can't get all excited, but when it's the best in 27 years, why shouldn't they be happy?" said Tarrant, an assistant coach until June, when Lou Goetz quit. Tarrant was given a one-year contract, which has been torn up for a longer deal.

Goetz believed in running. Tarrant, analyzing a team that had lost Michael Perry, the school's all-time leading scorer, changed the style. The Spiders now prefer a controlled pace that allows them to rely on intelligence and accurate shooting to beat more talented opponents.

"But we don't hold the ball," Tarrant said. "We work for shots, that's always been my style. But it's the only way we can stay in the game with most people. Our kids are leftovers when the ACC got done recruiting. We recruited Othell Wilson for eight months. Virginia signed him after eight days of recruiting. We talked to a lot of the Maryland players, like (Jeff) Atkins, (Pete) Holbert, and (Steve) Rivers, but we didn't have a chance."

Richmond's leftovers have beaten Wake Forest, Madison and Old Dominion, have been routed by Virginia, edged by Virginia Tech and Southern California and embarrassed by Navy at home, where the Spiders are 15-2 this year.

Six-foot-6 John Schweitz (17.5 points, 53 percent shooting), 6-9 Bill Flye (10.4), 6-10 Jeff Pehl (10.3, 55 percent) and 6-4 Tommy Bethea (9.5) do most of the scoring on a team without much depth or rebounding.

And what does Tarrant expect from the Terrapins, who have put on the brakes in many of their games this season?

"I think Lefty will try to blow us out," he said. "Any team they've played this year where he thought they had better talent they've gone out and run and tried to crush them.

"For us to stay in, we can't let them get going. We have to play smart and not make mistakes. Turnovers will kill us, but the kids have listened real well all year. And we've played well at home. Having a big crowd will help. Just having this game will help."