In the first two months of the season, 12th-ranked Maryland has shown it can play with some of the nation's top teams. Today, the Terrapins get a chance against the top team in their conference when they host No. 8 Duke.
Maryland (11-3) has won more games this season than any Atlantic Coast Conference team, including victories over Kentucky, Iowa and Illinois. But the Terrapins have been woeful against Duke over the past 15 seasons, winning just six of 34 meetings. The Blue Devils have been particularly dominant recently, beating Maryland five consecutive times by an average of 21.2 points. Among those games was a 104-72 victory on Jan. 3, 1998, Maryland's worst loss ever at Cole Field House.
But this season could be different. Both teams lost key players after last season, and the Terrapins are optimistic some different faces will mean a different result.
"They're a good team and they've had good teams in the past, but we've got a little bit of confidence going into this game," said redshirt junior center Mike Mardesich, indicating the Terrapins were not shaken by their 68-66 loss at North Carolina State on Thursday. "We know we're a good team. We've seen them play in a lot of tape and think there are some things we can do against them."
On paper, Duke (10-2) bares little resemblance to last season's team that went 37-2 and lost to Connecticut in the NCAA championship game. Center Elton Brand, swingman Corey Maggette and guard William Avery left school early and were first-round picks in the NBA draft; guard Trajan Langdon graduated and also was a first-round pick.
With two freshmen in the starting lineup and another in a key reserve role, Blue Devils Coach Mike Krzyzewski has been more patient this season, some players said, and also has done more teaching in practice than in the past.
"Last year, we had such good players that he didn't really have to do that much teaching," said redshirt junior forward Nate James, a Washington native. "He just had to roll the ball out there and let us play. But now, with such a young team, he has to do a lot of explaining."
That does not mean Duke is not talented. Senior swingman Chris Carrawell is averaging 17.4 points per game and junior forward Shane Battier (16.1 points per game) is quickly emerging as an offensive star. Freshman point guard Jason Williams has established himself as one of the best in the ACC. With a 10-game winning streak that includes victories over No. 17 Illinois and No. 23 DePaul, the Blue Devils are considered favorites to repeat as conference champions. The Blue Devils became the first team to go undefeated in conference play last season and have won 23 consecutive ACC games.
Perhaps the most important matchup today for Maryland will be at point guard, where freshman Steve Blake will have to defend Williams. Blake, 6-foot-3, 175 pounds, has had some difficulty defending offensive-minded point guards. Williams, with his 6-2, 190-pound frame, is averaging 15.9 points per game. He had several key baskets in a 109-100 victory over Virginia on Wednesday, often driving past his defender to the basket.
"Jason Williams was probably considered the best point guard coming out of high school last year," Maryland Coach Gary Williams said. "In high school, he was very physical and he is still a physical guard in college now."
Maryland's other two concerns will be avoiding a tendency to start slowly and rebounding. Both of those areas were problems against N.C. State: The Terrapins fell behind 18-4 and did not reach double figures until fewer than seven minutes remained in the first half; they allowed 22 offensive rebounds. But with two days of practice to prepare for Duke, Gary Williams said he thinks his team will be prepared.
"We'll be ready to play, I have no concern about that," Williams said. "What I'm concerned with, the N.C. State thing, that just can't happen anymore. . . . We just have to do a better job getting ready to play, the coaches and players."