Maryland Coach Gary Williams chose his words carefully when he stood at mid-court at Comcast Center last month and told the screaming Midnight Madness crowd about his team's goal for this season. He said the Terrapins "will try to defend the national championship," knowing full well just how difficult it will be.
When Maryland opens its regular season Sunday against Miami (Ohio), it will not have the championship team's four leading scorers and will be up against history and the scrutiny of national attention.
Excluding John Wooden's UCLA teams that won nine titles between 1964 and '73, only five other Division I teams have won consecutive national championships since the NCAA tournament began in 1939. Duke is the only other team to win back-to-back titles (1991-92) in the past 40 years.
"You become a team that everybody sets its sights on," Williams said. "It's really hard to win an NCAA championship. You look at some teams that you thought were very good teams that have never won or only won once. Everything has to go right. You have to be very good.
"It has to be a combination of everything. We hit that combination last year. You look last year at the fact that we were the only team from the year before to make [it back to] the Elite Eight, I think that tells you how hard it is to repeat as national champions."
Change in personnel is only one obstacle in repeating. The psychological and emotional pressures a team endures while bearing the label of national champion can only be understood through experience.
"All of them told me, 'Hang on to your hat. You're in for the ride of a lifetime this year,' " Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said, referring to the season following the Spartans' 2000 championship. "It wasn't that people would be gunning for you. It was all the other distractions. You've got to learn how to deal with them."
Every game against the defending national champion is that opponent's "big game." Moreover, a national championship often certifies you as the team to beat in your conference.
Before Connecticut won the national title in 1999, Huskies Coach Jim Calhoun said Big East teams often considered their biggest games as those against Syracuse and Georgetown, the conference's winningest teams over the past two decades. In 2000, Calhoun said that changed.
"No question, everyone thought they could make their season if they beat us," Calhoun said. "I was saying to myself, 'You really might have done something here when Syracuse stormed the court against us" after defeating the Huskies, 88-74, in Syracuse the following season.
"That was a big game for us," said Washington Wizards center Etan Thomas, who was a senior on that Syracuse team. He added that with a national title in hand, Connecticut was viewed as a more complete opponent. "But you've got to be prepared. You're thinking that when they're down, they're going to make a big run because they've been there before."
Michigan State senior center Aloysius Anagonye, who was a freshman on the Spartans' 2000 title team, said his subsequent opponents "always want their highlights against you. They eat, sleep and wait for your game."
Not only do opponents enter those games with more motivation, so do their fans. National champions can expect to see arenas sold out with overzealous fans when they go on the road.
"It's a huge difference in that pre-game publicity is a lot stronger," said Arizona Coach Lute Olson, whose team won its first national title in 1997. Since then, he said, the crowd has rushed the floor every time the Wildcats have lost a Pac-10 road game. "Everybody is saying how the national champions are coming. You generally play in front of a more boisterous crowd, and anytime you get an opposing crowd into it, in basketball more than anything, it affects the officiating."
Home fans also play a role, in that they are prone to complacency and expect their national champions to remain at the level established the previous season.
"No matter what you say, your fans automatically go there," Izzo said. "We were 19-10 last year. Then I start going back and I'm thinking, 'We just won 19 games.' I feel like I have to apologize. That was a little strange. That makes it more difficult because people's expectations are so much higher. You can say that that drives you, but that also means that if one or two things go wrong, the boom is lowered quicker, too, like, 'What's wrong with them?' "
Coaches often link veteran leadership and experience to making a deep run through the NCAA Tournament. In an era in which top players rarely spend four years in college, teams have difficulty establishing the roster continuity necessary to sustain consecutive championship seasons.
The past four national champions, however, have all had veteran stars who eschewed the NBA for one more season. Connecticut had junior Richard Hamilton in 1999; seniors Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson returned in 2000 to lead Michigan State; Duke's Shane Battier mentored younger stars Jason Williams, Mike Dunleavy and Carlos Boozer in 2001; Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter were third-year starters as seniors for Maryland last season.
"All of them had guys that could have left, but stayed," Izzo said. "I'll never forget we were getting beat by Syracuse [by 10] in the Sweet Sixteen, and at halftime, I remember Cleaves in the locker room just going nuts. He said, 'I came back to win a championship, I didn't come back to have us play like this.' "
Those players, however, came back to win their first title. In recent years, star players with eligibility seldom return after winning a national championship. Role players are then suddenly thrust into leadership roles for which they might not be prepared. Calhoun said guard Albert Mouring "struggled with it at times" when he entered the starting lineup and assumed Hamilton's scoring load the season following the national championship.
"The problem is role players are not quite ready," Olson said. "They usually need another season before they can take on a greater role."
Even the best role players on championship teams benefit from the postseason's national exposure. Sophomore forward Chris Wilcox had unspectacular per-game averages of 12 points and 7.1 rebounds last season for Maryland. Nevertheless, his abilities were on display on the sport's center stage, which increased his stock among NBA scouts. Wilcox passed up his final two years of eligibility and was the eighth pick in the NBA draft.
"Most [championship] teams, nowadays, you lose either seniors or a Wilcox-type situation," Williams said. "If Chris is playing for a team that is 12-15, does he get to be a eighth pick in the country? You get the attention, everybody looks at Chris and obviously he can do great things, but he might not have gotten that attention if we weren't as good as we were."
Each of the past two seasons, Maryland's two leading scorers, Dixon and Baxter, returned. The Terrapins did not need a role player to increase his workload dramatically to compensate.
This season, Maryland will need three key role players from its championship team -- guard Drew Nicholas and low-post players Tahj Holden and Ryan Randle -- to step into the starting lineup as seniors and take the big shots and make the defensive stops that Dixon and Baxter made a year ago.
"Guys have to adjust to not getting open looks because of the guys who left, and being the one keyed on," Nicholas said. "It's going to be one of my biggest adjustments."
Even though Michigan State became one of only nine teams to advance to three consecutive Final Fours (1999-2001), Izzo said his team never intimidated opponents with its success. The Spartans enjoyed a 53-game home winning streak, but Izzo said they never were able to use that power on the road.
"There's a little bit of that aura," Izzo said. "What we missed that a Duke or a Kentucky had, is that I'm not sure we ever got to use that aura to our advantage because we hadn't done it long enough where people actually feared that. You can go one of two ways [after winning a championship]: You can get cocky and complacent with it, or you can build on it. That's where I've had such great respect for Duke. I think they've just built on it, and that's what the rest of us have to learn how to do. Easier said than done."
Duke had just completed its five consecutive Final Four appearances when it won its second consecutive national title in 1992. Since 1986, the Blue Devils have been to nine Final Fours, had 12 seasons with at least 28 victories, and asserted themselves as the nation's leading program. Yet Duke has won only one other national championship (2001).
"It was a little different for us because teams were always gunning for us," said Wizards forward Christian Laettner, who played on the 1991 and '92 title teams. "We were used to getting everybody's best shot and being ready for it."
That is what Maryland can expect to face this season. The Terrapins will be the marquee attraction wherever they go. Opponents have never scrutinized Maryland as much as they will now.
Of course, the Terrapins say that they want to win another national championship this season, but can they expect that?
"I don't put a ceiling on our players," Williams said. "I don't say that if we won the league that would be a great accomplishment because you want to get much as you can every year. College basketball has really gone year to year. I don't hear too many coaches saying, 'I'm going to play these guys because they're young, and hopefully they'll be good.' Because if they get real good, they'll be gone.
"You just try to get this team to be the best team this year and worry about next year when the season is over."