Their matchup does not have quite the same feel as last season, when both teams were ranked in the top five nationally, but when No. 21 Maryland hosts No. 23 Kentucky tonight, both teams expect a charged atmosphere. The teams already have met once this season, with the Terrapins losing, 61-58, in the Preseason NIT semifinals on Nov. 24.
"There is a lot of anticipation for this game," Maryland forward Danny Miller said. "It is going to be on [national] TV, obviously, and there is going to be a lot of hype around it. They beat us already once [this season], so we want revenge against that. We're really looking forward to this game."
Maryland (7-2) has won its past 68 home games against nonconference opponents--the nation's longest such streak--but none of those victories came against a ranked opponent. And none of those opponents had the aura of seven-time national champion Kentucky.
However, the Wildcats (4-3) have struggled this season. They ended a three-game losing streak--their longest in 10 seasons--with an 86-41 victory over winless North Carolina-Asheville on Tuesday. Still, Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith, a native of Scotland, Md., thinks tonight's game--the Wildcats' second trip to Cole Field House since their historic loss to Texas Western in the 1966 NCAA tournament final--is more than a blip on the early season college basketball landscape.
"I don't think it has lost any luster as far as our players are concerned," he said. "It is another chance to measure ourselves against an excellent team."
When the teams met last season, then-No. 2 Maryland was 10-0 before losing to then-No. 5 Kentucky, 103-91, at Rupp Arena. Maryland has not beaten Kentucky in the teams' past five meetings, dating from the 1957-58 season.
"We owe them one," said Maryland guard Juan Dixon, who had his worst shooting performance of this season in November's loss to the Wildcats.
In that game, Maryland fell behind by 16 points in the first half before preseason all-American forward Terence Morris led a rally that tied the score with less than seven minutes remaining. But the Terrapins turned over the ball on five consecutive possessions and Dixon's long three-point attempt at the buzzer was a little too strong.
Maryland Coach Gary Williams has watched the tape of that game and identified three key points for the Terrapins tonight. The most important is to play well from the opening tip, something that has been a problem for Maryland this season. Also, the Terrapins probably will back off their pressure defense and try to play a solid, half-court defense. When Maryland did that in the Nov. 24 game, it limited Kentucky to 5-of-25 shooting in the second half.
"The main thing with us is we have to play good defense," Miller said. "That was our letdown in the first half against Kentucky last time."
Williams said that if Maryland is able to limit Kentucky's fast-break opportunities, rebounding will be critical.
"They are big and physical, and this year they depend on their rebounding to score, on second shots," Williams said. "We have to keep them from getting second shots, which is easier said than done."
Also of importance for Maryland will be righting its faltering back court. After a strong start, freshman point guard Steve Blake has struggled in the past two games against quicker, more offensive-oriented point guards. In Maryland's 76-65 overtime victory over Winthrop on Tuesday, Blake watched the final five minutes of regulation from the bench and played only sparingly in overtime as Williams used Drew Nicholas as a defensive replacement.
Said Blake, a member of Oak Hill Academy's undefeated team that was ranked No. 1 nationally last season: "I have to play better defense and I have to handle myself better. I kind of get down on myself too easy. I haven't lost in so long, and then we lost a game [74-69 to George Washington on Sunday] and I got down on myself because I didn't play well. I have to start playing better."
Dixon had 16 turnovers in the Terrapins' two games in the BB&T Classic last weekend and was 5 for 15 from the field on Tuesday, his second-worst performance of the season. Dixon was 3 of 17 against Kentucky last month as the Wildcats used taller defenders, particularly 6-foot-9 guard/forward Tayshaun Prince to guard him.
"Hopefully, he has learned from that, because Juan is quick enough to get his shot off no matter who guards him," Williams said. "When he gets open, he feels he should make shots. And if we run a good offense, in our offense he'll get those shots."
CAPTION: Maryland will rely on its half-court defense, which limited Kentucky in the second half Nov. 24, similar to Steve Blake's pressure on Jules Camara, left.