There seems to be some sort of Heisenberg uncertainty principle at work here. I know this year's Terps are a good team. I have seen them do wonderful things on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. But when it's time for me to make one final official observation before writing the endorsement they deserve, they go plastron-up.
So it was with the ACC tournament. Maryland cruised to victory over Florida State on Friday, then pulled out an ugly but gutsy win over North Carolina State on Saturday for their first trip to the final game since 1984. Then came Sunday and Duke. Clank.
I could grit my teeth and explain away the 81-68 whipping, if I really wanted to. Duke is, of course, a better team than Maryland -- or anyone else, according to the latest national rankings. Thanks to the ACC's current stupid nine-team staggered-bye tournament structure, the Blue Devils had an extra day's rest in their favor. And the Terps were at a serious disadvantage after starting small forward Danny Miller left the game with a sprained ankle.
But the excuses aren't enough. Miller only sprained his ankle because he was laboring to chase down Duke's Mike Dunleavy Jr. on a breakaway after a Maryland turnover. Little problems led to big problems that way all game long. Terps center Lonny Baxter, who'd singlehandedly finished off N.C. State the day before, picked up two fouls early and played passively the rest of the way, shooting 4-for-15 from the field and letting Duke freshman Carlos Boozer score over him at will. Point guard Steve Blake, who'd outplayed Duke's Jason Williams in their previous two meetings, got utterly manhandled this time. Shooting guard Juan Dixon carried the Terps through the first half, then stopped shooting down the stretch. Drew Nicholas, whose whole job is to come off the bench and shoot, played extra minutes in Miller's absence and shot 1-for-6.
Not everything about the game was so bad. Power forward Terence Morris, at least, was solid, in that Terence Morris way. He couldn't shoot either (6-for-16), but he grabbed 11 rebounds and kept Shane Battier from terrorizing the Terps the way the big Duke forward usually does -- though Battier, being Battier, did manage to knock down a game-breaking three-pointer midway through the second half. Tahj Holden came off the bench to score nine points on perfect shooting. He also got two rebounds and a steal, and he deserved an assist but didn't get credit from the official scorer for it.
That nonassist was the high point of the game. Holden got the ball on the fast break, drew the defense to the left side of the paint,
and dropped the ball off to Mike Mardesich for an easy layup. Mike Mardesich! Even in their darkest hour, these Terps give you something to love. After two years in coach Gary Williams' extra-large doghouse, there was the 7-foot Mardesich running the floor and filling the lane. His 10-minute cameo was phenomenal. He ripped down rebounds, hustled up- and downcourt, held his ground on defense. Down the stretch, he seemed to be the player who was taking the loss the hardest, watching Duke pull away with a fierce and incredulous glare.
But I'm not dwelling on this, the good or the bad, because I'm not writing about Maryland. Enough is enough. The rest of the NCAA tournament should give me plenty to work with. There's Duke, No. 1 in the East regional, in a bracket that points them toward a final-eight showdown with Temple, a gratifying matchup for Maryland fans. There's St. John's, the turbulent Red Storm, which has survived multiple suspensions of its point guard and intrasquad brawling to become perhaps the hottest team entering the tournament.
The South regional alone could be a bottomless well of material. For starters, it features Cincinnati, a week removed from being the top-ranked team in the country, now bumped down to a second seed because star senior Kenyon Martin broke his leg in their conference tournament. Unlovable as the Bearcats are, the demotion is indefensible. They still had the best record in Division I, at 28-3, after playing a grinding schedule. By ignoring that, and focusing on the hypothetical effects of Martin's injury, the NCAA is serving the interests of gamblers, no one else.
The South's subplots should be diverting too. Can North Carolina, with Ed Cota, Joseph Forte, and Brendan Haywood, really keep stinking as much as it has? Can defending champion Connecticut forget its midseason slump and make another run? Will the name of Ohio State guard Scoonie Penn ever cease to be amusing?
But the Midwest division, where the Terps are the third seed, I will leave alone. Other people can speculate about how Maryland will fare against Iona or UCLA or the fearsome Iowa State, with its quick guards and the remarkable Marcus Fizer. The Maryland athletic department can burble about how this young team has already made a success of the season, and everything from here on out is gravy. All I'll say is that the Terps are, once again, a very good team, and I look forward to watching them. And as long as they're still playing, my pen will find other subjects.
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