Maryland comes into Cameron tonight as the hottest team in the country, perhaps the hottest team in the nation, with a chance to absolutely lock down a tournament bid (assuming there is no major meltdown), and even a shot at ruining Coach K's birthday. What more could you want as a Terps fan?
Unlike most ACC teams, Maryland has an inside-outside game: James Gist and Bambale Osbey are both excellent inside and Gist can go out as well. And Landon Milbourne is coming on as a solid player.
The backcourt belongs to Greivis Vasquez and Eric Hayes, both of whom are solid sophomores, though Vasquez has been pretty erratic at times.
The Terps, though, seem to have pulled themselves together in a big way, and both offensively and defensively, the Terps are imposing.
Yet Duke has managed to neutralize most size advantages with a number of factors: their spread offense forces a lot of chasing, which isn't something most big guys are excited about. And they guys they're chasing are either highly athletic, excellent shooters, or just have a lot of savvy, or a combination of those factors.
Yes, Gerald Henderson and DeMarcus Nelson end up guarding bigger guys, but Nelson is incredibly strong and both guys have rocket boosters in their socks, and if you can get your hand higher than a 6-10 guy can get his, you go a long way towards neutralizing that advantage.
It works both ways, and one reason why Duke has been a strong second-half team is because they still have the energy to keep going after they've tired other guys out.
Part of that too is the fast pace Duke operates at, which also takes a toll.
Still, rematches are different, and ACC teams traditionally jack it up a level when they get a second crack at someone, and that goes double for Maryland when it comes to Duke.
One of Duke's big advantages in the previous matchup was turnovers: Maryland had 22. They've gotten better about that lately, with only 11 against State, only 12 against B.C., and only nine against Virginia. They did have 24 against Georgia Tech (Vasquez had eight), but that is an anomaly recently. Maryland has gotten a lot better at taking care of the ball.
Duke leads the ACC in turnover margin at +5.95. Maryland, predictably, is a better rebounding team and a better shot-blocking team. Equally predictably, Duke is the ACC leader in three point shots.
Basically, it's a clash of styles and strengths. But if Maryland isn't the same team Duke saw, Duke has also evolved. Greg Paulus has become a very steady presence. Nelson and Henderson are both forces offensively and defensively. Jon Scheyer has become this team's ideal sixth man and is playing with more athleticism than anyone would have dreamed of last year. And Nolan Smith has gone from a guy who is a nice presence to a guy who is periodically just ferocious.
But in some ways the biggest difference has come from Kyle Singler and Lance Thomas.
Singler has gotten a lot of praise for his versatility and deservedly so. In recent games though, he's become a different player. On the one hand, his outside shot has been deadly. On the other, he has shown an ability to maneuver in traffic which is truly impressive. He's playing with a lot more confidence, and he's becoming assertive, and that can take Duke from being really good to very good.
The most underrated player on the team, though, is Lance Thomas. He doesn't score a lot, and his rebounding is modest. But his feet are quick and he does a lot to help trap ballhandlers in the open court, and his energy is constant. He's learning to be careful about his fouls, and while his scoring isn't critical for this team, he's becoming a lot more confident about it.
Essentially, though, the game may come down to this: can Duke force Gist and Osbey out of position, or will Maryland use them as a battering ram to knock a hole in Duke's defense?
As Bill Russell pointed out long ago, a lot of times in basketball, defense is just a question of pushing someone a few inches out of their comfort zone, and that means attacking Hayes and Vasquez (particularly Vazquez) and pushing them further away from the basket, which in turn makes Gist and Osby move out to get the ball. We've heard a lot of praise for both guys as inside forces, but we're not sure we've heard anyone particularly praise their passing or ballhandling.
Duke has a tough challenge in this game, but if they can force Maryland a bit off balance, they will have an advantage.
Conversely, if they're cold from outside, or not turning the ball over and getting breaks, their job will be that much tougher.