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8 Upper

The Red and the Blue

By Tom Scocca | Posted 2/20/2002

It wasn't about Duke. Duke would like everyone to think it was, to think that the Maryland Terrapins men's basketball team made its season Feb. 17, with an 87-73 trouncing of the then-No. 1 Blue Devils. The Dukies talked the talk of upset victims: They'd lacked "focus"; they'd "overlooked" the Terps. The nation's pre-eminent basketball program had allowed its plucky conference rival to steal a game.

If Duke truly believes all that, then Duke is going to have a very dispiriting month of March. Duke lost to Maryland because, right now, Maryland is the best college basketball team in the country. Don't talk about Kansas, which ascended to No. 1 in both polls after Duke lost. Let Kansas get to the Final Four, and then we can talk. Maryland has been there already--with four of its five current starters in place, and its sixth and seventh men too. And there's no reason why the Terps can't go back, and go further this time.

Duke? What is Duke? Duke is No. 3 in the polls now, one spot behind Maryland. Duke is in second place in the ACC, a half-game behind Maryland. Duke is hoping, if it gets another shot at Maryland in the conference tournament, that its top players will be in peak form, that they'll hit the big shots, and that, somehow, the Blue Devils will come out ahead of the Terps.

In short, Duke is Maryland. And Maryland is Duke. The Blue Devils are a confection of brilliant talent, all but unbeatable when they're on their game. But the Terps are simply overwhelming. It's not that they "might be" the best team in the country or, God help us, "could be" the best, in that long tradition of Maryland could-have-beens. This team, here and now, is on top of the sport.

The Wednesday before the Duke game, I sat in Cole Field House and watched Maryland play Georgia Tech. It was, in some respects, a cruddy showing. The Terps turned the ball over 18 times. Juan Dixon went 0-for-9 from three-point range. Chris Wilcox got in foul trouble.

And they crushed the Yellow Jackets. The outcome was never in doubt--not when Tech grabbed a 21-20 lead after 12 minutes, not when Tech cut the Terps' lead to 44-40 to open the second half. It never crossed my mind that Maryland might lose, and it never seemed to cross Maryland's mind either. The Terps simply never gave Tech any opportunities to beat them. They dominated around the basket, out-rebounding the Yellow Jackets 53-34. They held Tech to five fast-break points, sprinting back on defense every time the visitors tried to run the floor. And on offense, they methodically sliced away at Tech's defenses. Against a pair of first-year centers, including a spidery 7-footer, Lonny Baxter used his bulk and guile to carve out shots: up and under, fading away, off the glass, or looping through space. Wilcox bounced up out of the scrum in the lane, head and shoulders above defenders, to score over everyone.

Then there was Byron Mouton, hitting six of 10 shots and grabbing seven rebounds. Mouton is famous for his pep, for bumping chests with his teammates and rousing the crowd. But what he really does for the team is almost the opposite: He keeps it composed. These Terps are not immune to the old Terrapin troubles, those dead spells when the offense slips out of sync for five or 10 or 15 minutes. They still forget about Baxter sometimes, or start firing three-pointers out of rhythm. But when they do, now there's Mouton, flying in on the weak side for a put-back, or popping free for a 10-foot baseline turnaround.

This is a distinct and invaluable kind of heroism. When the Terps need one great, heroic play to win, Dixon is the man to make it--even if he's ice cold, even if nothing has worked for him all night. But much of the time, what the Terps need is someone to make a nice medium-sized play. And that someone is generally Mouton.

Two or three seasons ago, back when the Terps were choking in the NCAA tournament every year, I concluded that "heart" is mainly a matter of tactics. Under pressure, a team either knows what play it's going to make or it doesn't. The players are prepared to do what's necessary, or they aren't.

And so far, these Terrapins have been prepared. Coach Gary Williams, who used to force every kind of talent into the same system, has developed a smooth, fluent eight-man rotation: big lineups, small lineups, a new balance of muscle and quickness to deal with every opponent. When the Terps lost to Duke in January, the 6-foot-6 Mouton was guarding 6-foot-9 prodigy Mike Dunleavy Jr.; for the rematch, the 6-foot-10 Wilcox got the assignment. Dunleavy, billed as the toughest match-up in the country, pretty much disappeared.

The lesson for Duke was simple: Maryland, this year, has more than the Blue Devils--more depth, more size, more options. Duke has known this since the first time the teams met this season, Duke's 21-point victory notwithstanding. For 30 minutes, the two teams were furiously attacking each other, trading baskets and trading leads. Then Duke hit a few extra shots, Maryland made a few turnovers, and poof! The defending national champions were rolling.

Except they didn't roll all the way, exactly. When the lead was firmly in double digits, with about seven minutes left, the Devils pulled back, spread out, and stopped running. Their stars were in foul trouble. Their legs were tiring. Duke could hold Maryland off, even stretch out the lead in the half-court. But if they tried to run anymore, the Terps were still there and still ready. The Terps weren't going away.

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