Ahab had his whale, Valjean had Javert, and Duke and Maryland have each other. The Terps are a tormented lot when it comes to Duke. It was bad enough when all Gary Williams had to do was answer questions for years about his record against Mike Krzyzewski. But then there was last year when Maryland lost 3 out of 4 to the Devils, including two games where the Terps may have already opened the champagne before the final buzzer. It was that last one, in the Final Four, where Williams thought he was seeing Duke fans in ref's uniforms and accused NCAA officials of fixing the game. Those were probably more palatable explanations than admitting his team ended up with a giant presidential pretzel lodged in their throats.
But before you go thinking that the torment goes just one way, remember that Maryland has started to make a habit out of crashing the Cameron party. In 2000, Maryland came into Cameron and made Duke look like a high school team - a slow high school team at that. Duke used almost everyone on the roster to try and stop Maryland shooting guard Juan Dixon. In the end they held him to 31 points - ouch! Last year, it was an identical 11-point loss on the scoreboard, but it was even more emotionally draining for Duke. Not only did the Devils lose the final home game for Shane Battier and Nate James, it also appeared they had lost Carlos Boozer for the rest of the year. Duke was clinging to a 4-point lead in the second half when Boozer went down. The mood was clearly bleak on the Duke sideline as it looked like any hope for a NCAA Championship had just slipped away. Hey, who knew?
The two teams have been on a collision course all year and there's no doubt that January 17th has been circled on a few calendars in both College Park and Durham. Between them, the two teams have just 3 losses on their records. For the Terps, both defeats came at the hands of teams that were very underrated at the start of the season - Arizona and Oklahoma. For Duke, the shocking road loss to Floida State has served as a wake up call and has the Devils playing their best basketball of the season.
It's hard not to like and respect Juan Dixon, arguably the best player at Maryland since Len Bias lit up the ACC. Dixon is like Allen Iverson without the posse, attitude, and handguns. Okay, maybe Dixon's game is like Iverson's without the attitude, ball hogging, and questionable shot selection. Okay, let's try this - both Dixon and Iverson are small guys with big numbers. (Note to Iverson supporters, you can send your irate comments to me at email@example.com. Be as nasty as you want, I don't mind.)
There's not that much Juan Dixon won't do for you on the basketball court. He's a dangerous shooter from deep with a quick release. At last year's game in the Final Four, he calmly dribbled down the clock at the end of the first half before tossing in a 28 foot three as the clock expired. He has a sensational midrange game, pulling up and nailing 10 foot jumpers off the drive. In the game at Cameron two years ago, Dixon repeatedly broke down Chris Carrawell for jumper shots in the lane. He is the best defender in the ACC. He sealed the Terps win over Ga Tech this year by picking the pocket of Tech point guard Tony Akins just when it looked like the Yellow Jackets were going to pull ahead.
Dixon is listed at 6-3 and 184 lbs., numbers that would make even a team of Arthur Anderson auditors raise their eyebrows. Yet despite his relative slight size, Dixon averages 4.5 rebounds a game. Producing those kind of numbers at that size gives you a good indication of the kind of heart Dixon brings to the court.
At the other backcourt spot is 6-3 junior, Steve Blake, who saves his best games for Duke. Much has been said about Blake's defensive efforts on Jason Willams and for seven games, Duke fans have been waiting for Williams to have a huge performance against Blake. There's just no way that this modestly ranked recruit can stick with everybody's All-American, right? Yet every game, there's Blake making Williams look downright mortal on the court.
This year, Blake has been struggling with his shot. In their blowout loss to Oklahoma, Blake was just 2-11 from the field. In the loss to Arizona he was 2-10. In their lackluster win against Princeton, Blake shot 1-6. When Blake is unable to keep defenses honest with a consistent outside shot, the Terps have difficulty running their offense.
Backing up both Blake and Dixon is combo guard Drew Nicholas, a 6-3 junior. Duke fans will remember Nicholas for the heavy contributions he made to the Devils amazing comeback in last year's game at Cole. That's illustrative of what Maryland gets with Nicholas. He's a solid combo guard, but he's not nearly as good as either Dixon or Blake. When he's in the game for Blake, the team is not as strong with the ball. Look for Duke to step up their ball pressure when Nicholas is in the game.
Terp center Lonny Baxter may be the most unheralded star in the ACC since Tim Duncan's days. The 6-8 senior was barely a top 100 recruit coming out of high school but an injury to starter Obinna Ekezie gave the Terps an early opportunity to see Baxter's potential. Despite looking like he spent most of his free time at the local Krispy Kreme, Baxter stepped up and contributed nearly 9 ppg. Since that time, he's lost weight and become one of the top players in the ACC.
Baxter is very effective in the paint, using his size and strength to get separation from his defender. He's particularly effective with a little hook shot that looks like he's just flinging it towards the basket - until it's gone in for the 7th time. Defensively he's a good shot blocker, but is also foul prone.
Contrasting Baxter's solid workhorse effort in the post is power forward Chris Wilcox, a player who will see a lot of time on SportsCenter before he quits playing basketball. After getting limited playing time last year, the 6-10 Raleigh native has emerged as one of the most exciting big men in college ball. Coach Gary Williams doesn't pull any punches when he says that Wilcox's fundamentals aren't terribly sound. He's not an especially gifted ball handler and he doesn't shoot well outside of a few feet from the basket. Unfortunately for most opponents, he's rarely more than a few feet from the basket and most of that time he's a few feet above the basket.
Wilcox is incredibly athletic and jumps out of the gym. He'll go up for dunks and have you thinking he's miscalculated and taken off too far from the basket. About the time that thought has bounced around your cranium a few times you'll see Wilcox stretching and throwing down a nasty PlayStation jam. The Maryland staff would like to have a little more rounded offense out of Wilcox. He has a very reliable right handed jump hook, but a few years in college would allow him to hit the NBA as a terrifying small forward.
Rounding out the Terp frontcourt is 6-6 senior Byron Mouton. Mouton averages 11 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 stupid gesticulations per game. He's been inconsistent all year from the three point line but does well getting the garbage points for the Terps. Defensively he's quick, but prone to gamble. Consequently, he's often out of position and either picks up fouls or gives up the drive.
Maryland is absurdly deep in the frontcourt. Their second string up front would be a good starting lineup for most teams in the NCAA. 6-10 junior Tahj Holden was supposed to be the starter at power forward coming into this season. But that was before the world got a glimpse of Wilcox and since the, Holden has returned to his role as the top reserve in the front court. Holden has the unusual combination of having the size to bang down low but also the touch to shoot well from the outside. The latter skill has also detracted from Holden's overall game as he can be a little too comfortable hanging around the three point line. In those situations, Holden can show the mobility of a redwood, waiting for someone to get him the ball so he can launch.
If the Terps get into deep foul trouble, they can turn to junior college transfer Ryan Randle. At 6-9, 245 lbs., he's a big body that can rebound and bang in the paint.
Because both teams like to play man defense, this game presents several interesting matchups. First off, from the Terps perspective, they have a decision to make in how they defend the Duke backcourt. Last year, the Terps were very successful matching up Blake on Jason Williams and Dixon on Duhon. Blake has great reach for a point guard and is able to deny Williams' penetration yet at the same time defend his outside shot.
But there's a chance that Williams and Blake may not face each other all that much. With Chris Duhon handling the primary point guard duties, Gary Williams has a choice to make. Does he defend the opposing point guard with his own? Or, does he go with the matchup that has been the most successful in previous games. The difference is that if he sticks with Blake on Jason Williams, he has use Juan Dixon on the point. While Dixon is an excellent defender, his real strength is off the ball. Dixon likes to play like a free safety, roaming the passing lanes and stripping the ball from other offensive players. If he defends Duhon, he won't have as much freedom to do the things he does best.
The other troubling matchup for Gary Williams to contemplate is how to defend Michael Dunleavy. That's a question Herb Sendek is probably still thinking about also. Playing Dunleavy at the power forward spot presents a greater challenge for opposing defenses than Shane Battier did last year at the position. While Battier may have been a better stationary shooter, Dunleavy is much better with the ball off the dribble. Last year, the Terps struggled with the matchup at the power forward spot with Terence Morris defending Battier. This year's power forwards - Wilcox and Holden - aren't nearly as polished a defender as Morris and either could have trouble chasing Dunleavy around the perimeter.
One potential option for Gary Williams is to use Byron Mouton to defend Dunleavy. Mouton has defended Dunleavy well in the past and would be more comfortable on the perimeter than any of the Terps power forwards. Maryland can afford to experiment with that matchup because Duke small forward Dahntay Jones has not been as productive from the outside as Dunleavy. Instead, his offense comes more in the 10 - 15 foot range, something that is much easier for a power forward to defend. The other benefit of that matchup for Maryland is that it allows them to keep their better rebounders close to the defensive glass.
Duke has some decisions to make on the defensive end also. The big challenge for the Devils will be in defending the Maryland post game and their flex offense that runs continual downscreens to open up players at either the elbow on the perimeter or in the low post. One of the reasons that Wilcox has emerged as starter is that he is far more mobile than either Holden or Randle and can move better in the offense. Both Dunleavy and Boozer will have to be judicious in their defensive aggressiveness. Indeed, much of this game may hinge on the play of Baxter and Boozer in the post, or more specifically, which player ends up in foul trouble first.
Last year, Duke and Boozer did a very good job defending Baxter in the post. But much of that was the result of the help defense of Shane Battier. In the National Semi-Final, Battier finished with 4 blocks, nearly all of them coming at Baxter's expense. Baxter finished the game shooting just 2-10 and was never able to find a rhythm with Battier lurking. This year, Boozer won't have that help and will need to use his strength to push Baxter out of his comfort range while at the same time avoiding cheap fouls. Should either Dunleavy or Boozer find themselves in foul trouble the Devils will be in deep trouble as there is a significant drop-off in talent when they have to go to their frontcourt reserves.
The other defensive decision Duke will face is how to deploy Dahntay Jones, the team's most athletic player and best defender. In a straight position by position matchup, Jones would find himself guarding Byron Mouton. But Mouton is probably Maryland's 4th option on offense and Krzyzewski may opt to use Jones on either Dixon or Wilcox. One of the keys to the Duke victory in Minneapolis last year was the defensive work of Nate James on Dixon in the second half. After scorching the Devils on 5-9 shooting in the first half, Duke adjusted and put a bigger defender on Dixon in the second half. The result was a 1-8 performance. Duke got similar results using Chris Carrawell to defend Dixon with the one notable exception being that game in Cameron 2 years ago. Jones may also get a chance to matchup with Wilcox if Dunleavy is unable to keep him away from the basket.
In a game like this, with two very talented and evenly matched teams, it's often a question of the fundamentals that determine the winner. For Duke, that means they must make an extraordinary effort on the boards. Maryland, despite all their size and talent, has not been dominating on the glass - outrebounding their opponents by just 3 rebounds a game. Relying on their athleticism to rebound rather than boxing out often traps the Terps. Duke has been getting solid rebounding contributions from their guards in recent games and will need to continue that to offset the depth and size of the Terps.
For the Terps, the fundamentals mean taking care of the basketball. Were it not for Maryland's 21 turnovers at the Final Four (compared to Duke's 7) we may be talking about a different National Champion. That turnover differential was also a big part of the ACC Tournament final when Maryland committed 20 turnovers to Duke's 7.
One thing everyone learned last year is that anything can happen when these two teams get together. Neither team will be comfortable regardless of the lead or the time left on the clock. The only guarantees are that Gary will be sweating, the Crazies will be loud, and the basketball will be exceptional.