First things first, said Murray Arnold, the Tennessee-Chattanooga basketball coach who grew up near the the campus of the University of Maryland, his team's first-round opponent Thursday in the NCAA tournament.
"I'm not going to speak to any of you guys until I get my Ledo's pizza in advance," he said, referring to a restaurant less than a mile from campus. "I like them with extra cheese and bacon."
You can argue with his choice of pizza toppings but not with with his coaching success. Arnold, a 1960 graduate of American University and an assistant coach at De Matha High School in Hyattsville for three years, has coached Chattanooga to 74 victories and to Southern Conference championships the past three seasons. They were 26-3 this year.
The Moccasins lost to Maryland in the first round of the 1981 NCAA tournament, but last season defeated North Carolina State in the first round before losing to Minnesota by a point in the second. The team that Maryland will play Thursday night in Houston hardly resembles those two, even though three starters return from last season.
Gone is 6-foot-10 Russ Schoene, currently with the Indiana Pacers, and Nick Morken, a point guard extraordinaire. They were the foundation of those past teams. Chattanooga is winning this season with a quicker, smaller team that is more dependent on the one-on-one play of guard Willie White and forward Gerald Wilkins, the brother of Dominique Wilkins, a leading candidate for NBA rookie of the year.
The younger Wilkins, a sophomore who attended junior college for one year, has the potential to be a better player than his brother. Tennessee Coach Don DeVoe was so quoted after the Vols defeated Chattanooga, 55-49, earlier in the season.
Only 6-8 Stanley Lawrence, among the eight Moccasins who normally play, is taller than 6-6, but Chattanooga is about even with its opponents in rebounding. Chris McCray and Skip Clark have alternated at point guard, and some regard that position as a trouble spot.
Nevertheless, the Moccasins have been vastly superior to their opponents in three key categories: turnovers (114 fewer than their opponents), assists (72 more) and steals (64 more).
McCray currently is starting at point guard because of his quickness, but he is six inches shorter than his Maryland counterpart, 6-5 Jeff Adkins. Clark, who started last season as a wing guard, has played better as a substitute. Wilkins plays the other wing position, with Stanley and 6-6 Stanford Strickland manning the double post.
Defensively, Arnold would rather play man to man and maintain as fast a tempo as possible in efforts to wear down his opponent.
And he is not exactly upset about the draw that has the Moccasins playing an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent for the third straight year in the first round, with Houston, the nation's top-ranked team, awaiting the winner in its home city.
"That's what the NCAA tournament is all about--the opportunity and the challenge," he said. "Having an opportunity to play a nationally known basketball power with tradition out of the Atlantic Coast Conference is an opportunity for us. If there's room for an awesome challenge, it's out there, too--to play the No. 1 team in the country at their place."