Jim Valvano is downright pleased. It's now March, his favorite month, and his North Carolina State Wolfpack is sitting pretty among the leaders of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The Wolfpack, which will play host to Maryland tonight at 9 at Reynolds Coliseum, is 21-6, 8-4 in the ACC, and ranked 16th in the country. The defending ACC tournament champion, N.C. State did not start fast, but the Wolfpack is now as hot as any team in the league, with the possible exception of Georgia Tech.

"We are an extremely realistic outfit around here," Valvano said this week. "We put on the board what we hoped to accomplish. We had eight games where we thought we needed to go 8-0. Then in our conference -- and people get testy with me on this -- I tell the kids I want to be 7-7, and anything above that -- God bless them. Then there were seven national games and we had hoped to go 5-2 and that would have given us a 20-9 record. We always get invited to the ACC tournament. The goal is to get in the NCAA tournament. I think the kids have done a good job and our staff has done a good job."

While N.C. State is all but guaranteed of being in the NCAA tournament, Maryland is on the edge. The Terrapins (15-10, 5-7) would benefit greatly from a victory tonight. Win or lose, they will surely have to beat Virginia on Saturday at Cole Field House. If they lose to N.C. State, they will need a strong showing in the tournament (assuming they don't win it) to qualify.

"Let's face it," said N.C. State's Vinny Del Negro. "They need to beat us. They know it. We know it. We'd like Maryland to make the NCAA tournament, but not at our expense."

It was Del Negro's jumper with two seconds left that gave N.C. State an 83-81 victory over Maryland in their first meeting. But the 6-foot-5 senior is just one of three players averaging more than 16 points a game. Forward Chucky Brown is leading the team with a 16.9 average, while center Charles Shackleford is hitting 16.3 and leads the ACC in rebounding with 9.5 per game. Del Negro is averaging 16.1 points per game.

Shackleford has begun to shed his reputation for inconsistency. He swept through the Maryland defense for 30 points.

The ACC said that Maryland freshman Cedric Lewis would not be granted another year of eligibility for a medical hardship. Lewis has mononucleosis and has not played since December, after playing in the Terrapins' first seven games. To qualify for a hardship year, a player must not play in more than 20 percent of his team's games.