The 14th-ranked Maryland Terrapins have been as difficult to get a read on as the conference they play in, the jumbled ACC. Just when it seems the Terrapins are definitely headed in one direction or the other, they quickly reverse the trend.

"That's probably the funniest thing about this year's team," guard Drew Nicholas said today as second-seeded Maryland went through its final preparations for Friday's game against seventh-seeded North Carolina in the first round of what many coaches and players say is the most wide-open ACC tournament in many years.

Regular season champion and No. 9 Wake Forest, Maryland and No. 12 Duke seem ensured of NCAA tournament bids. All three teams hope that a strong showing here will improve their NCAA tournament seeding, though the ACC most likely will not produce a No. 1 seed for the first time since 1996.

Fourth-seeded North Carolina State (16-11) appears to have the most to gain -- or lose. Despite going 9-7 in ACC play, the consensus is that because of a weak nonconference showing the Wolfpack at minimum needs a victory on Friday over Georgia Tech to earn an NCAA tournament bid.

"You say we're on the bubble?" forward Julius Hodge said with a chuckle, well aware of his team's situation. "I haven't heard much about that."

Asked if he would prefer to be safely in the NCAA tournament, the ever-quotable Hodge said: "I think it's always good to have a sense of urgency, even though it probably would be nice to be 28-0 and the number 1 seed and come into the ACC tournament knowing you're going to win your first couple games."

That's similar to the situation Maryland was in last year, but the Terrapins have been anything but consistent this season, which has included a 15-point victory over Duke and a 23-point thrashing of Wake Forest but also losses to their three quality nonconference opponents and an 0-2 record against Virginia. Despite the wild inconsistencies, Coach Gary Williams is certain the Terrapins will be ready for the postseason.

"We're going to play great," said Williams, whose team has won four games against North Carolina, including a 96-56 victory on Feb. 22, the Tar Heels' worst loss in more than 53 years. "I'd be shocked if we didn't play great. We have a lot of pride."

The Terrapins would like nothing more than to add an ACC tournament title to their trophy case. They have won the tournament just twice, in 1958 and '84. Even last season, when it won the national championship, Maryland lost in the ACC semifinals.

Winning the tournament "would be something last year's team didn't do," Williams said. "We knew we were a number one seed [in the NCAA tournament] last year pretty much going into the thing. We didn't show much interest. I think we'll show more interest this year."

Maryland's 1984 tournament title was claimed in the Greensboro Coliseum and was the only time in conference history that a team from outside the state of North Carolina beat three teams from the Tar Heel state to win the conference championship. If this year's seedings hold true, Maryland would need to repeat that feat in order to leave here Sunday with the biggest piece of hardware.

Meantime, Virginia has its sights set on salvaging a disappointing season by winning three consecutive games and the league's automatic berth in the NCAA tournament. The Cavaliers ended a seven-game losing streak by beating Maryland this past Sunday and they want to end another losing streak Friday: their seven-year postseason drought.

Virginia was swept by Duke in the regular season, but swept Maryland and split with Wake Forest. Those victories give the Cavaliers hope that they can beat Duke, which has won the past four tournaments, the first team ever to do so. However, Virginia also was swept by Clemson and split with Florida State -- the two teams that met in tonight's play-in game.

"There have been times they've been great," Duke guard Chris Duhon said. "There have been times they've been awful."

If anybody is a favorite, maybe it is Wake Forest, which enters with a six-game winning streak and 12 victories in its past 14 games. The Demon Deacons, however, don't want to forget why they have been successful.

"Play like you're the last-place team in the conference, don't get a big head, play like you went 0-13 in the conference," said forward Josh Howard, who almost certainly next week will be named the ACC player of the year. "That's what we're going to do."

As for the notion that Duke might be an underdog this weekend, Virginia Coach Pete Gillen had other ideas.

"Please," Gillen said in a drawn-out voice. "They've got Hardee's all-Americans, McDonald's all-Americans, Arby's all-Americans, Pizza Hut all-Americans. They've got a Hall of Fame coach. Just because they didn't win the league, they're not underdogs."