"Awesome," Lefty Driesell said. To his right were the coach and two players from Big Ten champion Michigan, ranked second in the country; to his left were Coach Rollie Massimino and three players from Big East contender Villanova.

Neither team happened to fit Driesell's definition of awesome early Saturday afternoon. The juggernaut that Maryland's coach was implying might be the greatest thing to come down the NCAA pike since TV timeouts was a bit farther down the podium.


Of the fabled ECAC South.

Mighty Navy.

Awesome Navy.

No one has ever said anything quite like that about Navy basketball.

"Lefty does that all the time," said Navy Coach Paul Evans, laughing. "Towson State (against whom Driesell won the 500th victory of his collegiate career) was awesome two weeks ago."

Navy is the immensely appealing team to emerge from the 64 that began NCAA play Thursday. One always seems to each year. Six years ago it was Penn, which made a Final Four that included Magic Johnson and Larry Bird; two years ago it was eventual champion North Carolina State.

The Midshipmen are this tournament's slice of warm apple pie on the back porch window, Smurfs battling Supermen, guardians of our future spitting not into a wind but a cyclone. I mean, can you imagine someone named Kylor Whitaker deep into the drudgery of basketball?

("I say, Mr. Whitaker, sir, there's a frightful chap bearing down from midcourt who seems intent on charging right through you to the hoop."

"Be a good fellow, Jeeves, and go take the charge for me.")

Having sensed such absurdity, and that he cannot possibly win for winning, Driesell blew ahead at full speed anyway in puffing Maryland's Sunday opponent in the Southeast Regional.

"They got these guys who go 225 and 230 and . . . ."

Evans interrupted:

"Whitaker, would you stand up? This is getting out of hand."

Kylor Whitaker began to stand, and everybody at the press conference howled. Generously listed at 185 pounds and 6 feet 6, Kylor Whitaker is a small forward who is genuinely small.

Lost in the laughter was the fact that Maryland likely will start a small forward who weighs not an ounce more than Kylor Whitaker.

But Adrian Branch does have some advantages over Kylor Whitaker.

As does Maryland over Navy.

"If we start doing things the athletes are doing," Evans said, "We're in trouble."

Driesell was right about one observation: Navy is playing better than any team here.

Better than Michigan, which scarcely escaped Fairleigh-Dickinson.

Better than Villanova, a two-point winner over Dayton.

Better than Maryland, which might have been more lucky than good against Miami of Ohio.

Navy ran a clinic against a Louisiana State team that very likely has more talented players than Maryland. This worries Driesell. Possibly, this was one reason he chose not to bring any players to the news conference.

Even a landlubber knows loose lips sink ships.

Still, Driesell only was grasping for what every coach wants at such times: the underdog role. The Michigan and Villanova coaches also scrapped for it.

"I'd probably trade my front line for (Ed) Pinckney," the Wolverines' Bill Frieder said. "He jumps, and keeps going up when all the others are coming down."

"But Michigan is averaging 37 rebounds a game," the Wildcats' Massimino countered. "Our little babies are only at 31."

Massimino said his poor little tabbycats might have to play stall ball against monstrous Michigan.

"It might be a 4-2 game," he said.

"They're too talented for that," Frieder fussed.

"Okay," Massimino admitted, "5-4."

Lest the nation become overly impressed by the Midshipmen's 23-point victory over LSU in round one of the NCAAs, Evans volunteered some perspective.

"Army still is the biggest win you can have," he said. "We could be where we are, and had the Army game (a 48-47 Navy victory) gone the other way it would not have been a good season."

Navy seems likely to attack Maryland on the court as Evans did Driesell off it today. They are friends, but also competitors.

Maryland is comfortable burying Navy, Evans said.

"We never buried Navy," Driesell countered.

You're 10-0 against the Midshipmen, a writer reminded him.

"But they've always been close games," Driesell insisted.

No, they haven't.

The average margin of victory for Maryland has been nearly 18 points. The closest Navy has gotten is eight. With Evans at the helm, Maryland has won by 22 and 25 points.

Evans does not want the Midshipmen to regard Maryland as a crusade, to the point that they abandon the thoughtful style of play so effective so far.

Still, Kylor Whitaker and the rest are bright enough to know that this ain't UNC-Wilmington or Western Illinois. Or even Richmond in the finals of the ECAC South tournament.

It's Maryland of the snooty ACC, and for decades the Midshipmen have been the kids with their noses pressed against the glass of what seems a neat, but impenetrable, party. All of a sudden it seems possible to crash the celebration.

Except that the Terrapins are better, if they keep their heads from being muddled.

"There's so much pressure on both teams," Evans admitted. "Almost too much. If Lefty loses, he's in big trouble. If we win, it's great but probably because Maryland played poorly.

"In a way, it's a no-win situation."

Somebody wondered if Navy might be the latest America's Team.

Evans smiled.

"I hope," he joked, "that three guys in striped shirts give support to that."