Monday, February 05, 2007

Terps Win, Duke Loses, Now We're Talkin

Finally, A Win on the Road in the ACC; Can Terps Go on a Roll?

By Greg Abel

Two great things happened for Maryland men’s basketball fans this weekend: The Terps won and Duke lost. I don’t know about you, but that’s my favorite combo in sports.

On Saturday night, Maryland got a desperately needed road win, a 79-72 victory over Wake Forest to improve to 3-5 in the league, 17-6 overall.

On Sunday night, right around the same time that Peyton Manning changed his legacy for forever, Duke (18-5, 5-4) lost its second straight league game, this time at home, 68-67 to a very dangerous and talented Florida State (17-6, 5-4) team.

So it goes in this year’s ACC. As soon as you think you have it figured out, the next set of games changes perceptions. Look at Saturday’s results – on that day, of the five ACC ballgames, only Maryland won on the road. Elsewhere, UVa took care of its sixth straight win by beating Miami in Charlottesville, while three unranked teams won at home over three ranked teams.

Georgia Tech beat suddenly reeling Clemson in Atlanta, 80-62 (Clemson is 1-5 since staring the season 17-0); in Boston, BC drilled Virginia Tech, 80-59; and the most surprising result of the weekend came from Raleigh, where N.C. State beat mighty UNC, 83-79.

Now, I know most people who follow college hoops saw those scores. But what I want to underscore is what they mean, and that’s this – no one – not you, me, Dick Vitale, or Digger Pheps – has any idea (after North Carolina) which are the “really” good teams in the ACC.

It’s safe to say North Carolina is the best team in the league, this weekend’s defeat notwithstanding. What the Tar Heels have done this year that no one else in the league has done with regularity, is beat good teams by wide margins on the road and at home. Need proof: Carolina beat Florida State 84-58. Maryland has a decent tema, but they could play Florida State 20 times this year and not beat the Seminoles by 26 points.

The Heels are the class of the league, even if they are technically in third place as I write this on Sunday night.

And then there is, literally, everyone else. Yes, I know that UVa is hot, Boston College looks tough, and Florida State has some serious talent. But are you telling me that Maryland or Clemson or Georgia Tech or Duke could not beat any of them on any night? Of course they could. It’s the season of parity in the ACC, where Carolina will likely win the league with a record of 13-3 or so, and then my bet is that we’ll see 6-8 teams with records from 6-10 to 10-6, without much difference in talent between them.

So, where does all this leave our beloved Turtles?

Well, thanks to the road win Saturday night (whew!), they are at least back in the conversation to get back to the NCAA tournament. If nothing else, the win at Wake gave the Terps a dose of confidence heading into a HUGE week with home games against UVa on Tuesday night and against Duke on Sunday. And if we have learned nothing else this season, we have learned that junior James Gist just might have turned the corner from good to great.

The starting seniors – D.J. Strawberry, Mike Jones, and Ekene Ibekwe – have all had their moments, but none has proven to be consistent or talented enough to lead Maryland to elite status. Gist might just have that star quality we’ve been waiting and hoping for. He is averaging 22 points in his last three games and has started taking and making outside jumpers, including some three-pointers. Here’s hoping Gist keeps it up.

The last time Maryland played UVa, the Cavaliers sprung 103 points on the Terps in Charlottesville, in a game that sent the Cavs on their current win streak. Some payback would be nice, especially if Maryland can figure out a way to slow down Virginia’s spectacular backcourt of Sean Singletary and J.R. Reynolds, both of whom average close to 19 points per game.

The good news is that UVa is not a very good road team, 3-5 on the year, though they have won their last two in conference at N.C. State and at Clemson.

It’s a great opportunity for Maryland to get an important league win against a good team. If they can do so, they will face Duke on Sunday with a chance to get back to .500 in the ACC.

Speaking of Duke, let’s take a look at this year’s squad and whether or not they measure up to the powerful Blue Devils squads that we have gotten so used to hating over the years. Short answer: they aren’t all that. For the first time in a while, there isn’t one player on Duke who is, for lack of a better word, scary.

Junior guard DeMarcus Nelson leads the team in scoring at around 14, and he’s a nice player, but he’s not anything like the assassin that J.J. Redick was in college. Point guard Greg Paulus does a very nice job running the Duke team and can score (he had 22 against Florida State), but again, he’s won’t single-handedly beat Maryland or anyone else.

Up front, it’s all about sophomore Josh McRoberts for Duke, who averages 13 points and 8 rebounds. And to that I say, so what? Those aren’t much different than Ibekwe or Gist’s numbers. McRobert is a solid player, he can handle the ball and get his opponent in foul trouble, but again, not a guy who makes your heart sink when he touches the ball. Bottom line: Duke can be had this year, no doubt about it.

Overall, my theme for this week’s column is this: things are not that bad for Maryland, there is plenty of season left, there is time to make a run, time to get back to the tournament. Sure, the losses on the road have hurt, and nothing hurt more than the inexcusable home loss to Miami, but Maryland has two chances this week to get their season pointed back to the NCAA tournament.

UVa at home on Tuesday, Duke at home on Sunday. Two wins and you might even see Maryland back in the top 25. A split and we’re still thinking about a bid and grinding away on the road the following week. This much I can say for sure: I have no idea what will happen, but it will be nerve-wracking and fun to watch.

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