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Turnarounds are completed

UTEP, Maryland rebounded from '03

DENVER -- UTEP enjoyed one of the greatest turnarounds in college basketball history this season. Maryland wasn't too bad, either.

The Miners improved from 6-24 to 24-7 while Maryland came on at the end of the season, winning the ACC tournament and earning the No. 4 seed in the Phoenix Regional.

The teams meet today in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. In other games, No. 12 seed BYU plays defending national champion Syracuse, the No. 5 seed; No. 14 Princeton plays No. 3 Texas; and No. 11 Air Force meets No. 6 North Carolina.

UTEP's turnaround was just one victory shy of the NCAA record of 19 set by Murray State in 1980 and equaled by Ohio State in 1999. The NCAA began keeping the statistic in 1974.

"I don't think you can have a major turnaround like we had without unbelievable character," Miners coach Billy Gillispie said yesterday. "Everyone has to be playing for the good of the team. They have been totally selfless in every single respect."

Better personnel helped, too.

The Miners' top three scorers -- Omar Thomas, Jason Williams, and Filiberto Rivera -- are all junior college transfers in their first seasons at UTEP.

"After we signed, we were just trying to come in and have a winning season," Thomas said. "We wanted to turn UTEP around. Fortunately, it happened quicker than we expected."

UTEP tied for the Western Athletic Conference regular-season title, and is in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1992 after winning 12 of its last 15 games and receiving an at-large bid.

Late in the season, Maryland seemed in danger of missing the tournament for the first time in a decade. The Terrapins were 14-11 with two regular-season games left.

Then they won at No. 16 North Carolina State and defeated Virginia before sweeping through the ACC tournament with victories over Wake Forest, North Carolina State, and Duke.

"Three weeks ago it was questionable whether we would be here or not," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "To come in as a fourth seed is a big thrill for me and, I hope, for the team."

His players just grew weary of being written off.

"We struggled early on," center Jamar Smith said. "Toward the end, people were talking bubble talk, and the whole team was getting tired of hearing about it. We knew we were a great team. We just had to go out there and prove it. With the last five games, we turned the whole season around."

Maryland (19-11), the 2002 national champion, has reached the round of 16 or better in each of the last three seasons and seven times since 1994.

Gillispie said Maryland is "very athletic, very talented, unbelievably well coached. They're bigger, stronger, and quicker than us. It's a very scary team.

"We have great respect for Maryland, but we play without too much fear. We might make mistakes, but it won't be because we're afraid to play."

BYU (21-8) boasts one of the nation's best big men in 6-foot-11-inch Rafael Araujo, the co-player of the year in the Mountain West Conference, who is averaging 18.2 points and 10 rebounds.

Syracuse (21-7) earned the No. 5 seed despite losing to Boston College in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament. The Orangemen are led by Hakim Warrick (19.6 points) and 3-point specialist Gerry McNamara (16.2).

Princeton (20-7) is coming off its 25th Ivy League title and is making its 23d NCAA Tournament appearance. The Tigers have the No. 2 scoring defense in the country (56.5).

Texas (23-7) is deep and experienced, but the Longhorns have lost three of their last five games. Brandon Mouton leads Texas in scoring (13.4).

Air Force (22-6), which makes its first tournament appearance since 1962, plays Princeton's patient offense and has the No. 1 scoring defense in the nation (50.4).

North Carolina (18-10), which missed the tournament the last two years, has five starters that score in double figures, led by Rashad McCants (20.1).

UTEP, Maryland, BYU, and Syracuse are in the Phoenix Regional. Princeton, Texas, Air Force, and North Carolina are in the Atlanta Regional.

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