By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, March 4, 2010; D01
If I could have a ticket to one college basketball game around here this season, just one game, I'd want to see Maryland play Duke. Once upon a time it would have been St. John's-Georgetown or Maryland-North Carolina. For a stretch of time Georgetown-Syracuse was must-see stuff. But right now I want to be front-and-center for Duke visiting Maryland, for one of the best rivalries in one of the best basketball leagues in the country.
I want to see Mike Krzyzewski and Gary Williams coax the best out of their players and scold refs. I want to see the Maryland kids all dressed in one color (this time yellow) sitting on that steep wall of a student section, stomping their feet and yelling insanely. I want to see what old Maryland players come to the gym to lend moral support; this time it was Buck Williams, Walt Williams, Byron Mouton, Jeff Baxter, Juan Dixon, Tom McMillen. I want to see how many people never ever take their seats, how many NBA scouts come to see who can play when the pressure is cranked up. I want to see what, for me, is the precursor to March Madness.
I want to see all the recruits, football and basketball, the Maryland programs bring to the game to say, "Look, kid, at what wonderful stuff you can be a part of if you come here!" I want a ticket to see Duke-at-Maryland because the intensity of it has enough heat to melt a block of ice and because I never leave disappointed.
Wednesday night, with the first place in the ACC on the line was no different. As Coach K would say afterward: "What they did was good. What we did was good. It wasn't a game where there was bad stuff."
That's right, there was, relatively speaking, only good stuff right down to the last drop. There, with less than a minute left and the shot clock running down and Maryland leading by only two, was Greivis Vasquez, Maryland's ACC player-of-the-year candidate, holding the ball as John Scheyer, Duke's ACC player-of-the-year candidate, smothered him defensively, looking for a stop that would give Duke the chance to tie the game.
Scheyer didn't get it. Vasquez, who was really good but not brilliant this particular night, nonetheless took the ball right and threw up one of those shots that seems impossible to make, except we've become accustomed to seeing make it game after game, all season long. Bucket. Maryland wins, Maryland wins, Maryland wins, 79-72.
"They fought, we fought -- one possession," Coach K said. "It's a one shot game."
The Terrapins, who most people thought very little of at the start of the season, are now tied with Duke for first place in the ACC. March, indeed, is already mad if you're a Maryland basketball fan. The Terrapins have won six straight, most of them nail-biters.
And this one began the way most seem to have started over the last nine years. Maryland jumped out to a double-digit lead and Duke caught the Terrapins before halftime. The pattern is as much a part of the thrill as the outcome, and part of why the series has become so compelling. Maryland, remember, has played Duke closer, tighter, better than any team in the ACC except North Carolina.
The Terrapins are 8-12 against Duke in the last nine years, but were 7-6 during one particularly heated stretch. The Blue Devils, however, had won six straight coming into Wednesday's game, a game that found first place in the conference at stake.
It was no surprise to find Duke at 12-2 in the ACC, 25-4 overall and ranked fourth in the country. The cast of characters has been around for awhile, at least by today's college basketball standards. Jon Scheyer, the deadeye shooter who essentially replaced J.J. Redick, is a senior. Nolan Smith, the back-court ace from Upper Marlboro, is now a junior. Lance Thomas is a senior, as is Brian Zoubek, the 7-foot-1 center who has improved dramatically over his time at Duke. And don't forget the player who, for my money, is the best of all these particular Dookies, Kyle Singler, the 6-8 swingman who can play inside and out, the one who played the full 40 minutes and seemed to be the leader of the pack when Duke cut Maryland's 14-point first-half lead to 40-38 at halftime.
People always want to know how talented Duke really is. The answer is plenty. It's not an overpowering team; there isn't one in the NCAA this season, not Kentucky, not Kansas, not even Syracuse, which is the top-ranked team in the nation. They're all really good, but nobody is great the way North Carolina and U-Conn. have been recently.
Coach K confirmed as much afterward when he said: "I don't think we're a great team. We're a very good team that's played one of the toughest schedules in the country, and won 25 games. I love my team."
Duke, as always, has shooters, and unlike some recent seasons Duke has size this year and plenty of it. And they used it to bludgeon Maryland on the boards (19-13 the first half) when cutting the deficit from 14 points to nothing, then taking a slim lead. But Maryland, as has become the trademark of this team, battled back to win the rebounding battle, 36-35.
If you want to just talk talent, pure skill and athleticism, Duke has a lot more of both than Maryland. But the Terrapins have a tenacity about them, a moxie that has served them well in gradually becoming a good team this season, in winning games on the road at Virginia Tech, at N.C. State, at Florida State, in building this six-game winning streak after being trampled down in Durham last month. You wouldn't put this group in the top 25 Maryland basketball teams you've ever seen in terms of sheer talent. But they make up for it with determination, with resourcefulness, with unselfishness and certainly with a flair for making the dramatic play.
It wasn't a matter of whether the Terrapins could sustain the big lead they built on all that adrenalin and near perfect execution those first 16 minutes against Duke; you knew they couldn't because Duke is too good and too experienced to get blown out of a conference game this late in the season. The question was whether Maryland could retake the lead after giving it up, whether they could hit enough shots, make enough stops, win enough scrums down the stretch. And the Terrapins did.
It was another riveting back-and-forth game, like so many of the others.
Maryland was going to need contributions from not just the starters, beginning with Vasquez, but from the role players and guys off the bench, kids like Cliff Tucker, Adrian Bowie and Dino Gregory to match what Duke would get form Miles and Mason Plumlee and Andre Dawkins, whose three-pointer gave Duke a 59-58 lead with 6 minutes 55 seconds to play.
It was, again, like most of the others the last decade, which is to say nerve-wracking, contentious, passionate, even desperately played.
It's safe to say that few people outside the Maryland locker room figured the Terrapins would be tied for first place in the ACC three days into March, that they would be on a six-game roll, that freshman Jordan Williams would be able to hold his own with a 15-point, 11-rebound performance against the big Dookies, that Eric Hayes and Sean Mosley would make such huge plays down the stretch in games of confidence, like this.
For most of last season there were a lot of long faces around College Park, a lot of people who were fixated on what the basketball team wasn't, few accurately forecasting what they would become.
"We went through all that for a reason," Vasquez said. "All the people who talked bad about us last year, we forgive them."
With that, Vasquez, after playing his final home game in College Park, smiled and welcomed those who wanted in back on the bandwagon. It's crowded and loud and there's a sense that something very sweet could be happening.