Thursday, February 25, 2021

INTELLIGENT CONVERSATION

Terps no longer feeling like underdogs against Duke

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Luke Jones
Luke Jones
Luke Jones is the Ravens and Orioles beat reporter for WNST BaltimorePositive.com and is a PFWA member. His mind is consumed with useless sports knowledge, pro wrestler promos, and movie quotes, but he struggles to remember where he put his phone. Luke's favorite sports memories include being one of the thousands of kids who waited to get Cal Ripken's autograph after Orioles games in the summer of 1995, attending the Super Bowl XXXV victory parade with his father in the pouring rain, and watching the Terps advance to the Final Four at the Carrier Dome in 2002. Follow him on Twitter @BaltimoreLuke or email him at Luke@wnst.net.

Sitting with reporters immediately following a convincing win over North Carolina last Sunday, Greivis Vasquez spoke candidly—if not with a sliver of irritability—after several questions about the significance of beating North Carolina.

“Yeah, we won last year, and it was a huge win when everybody was against us,” the senior said after scoring 26 points against the Tar Heels. “But now it means a lot because we’re good. Everybody was expecting us to win, and that’s the way it should be.”

Vasquez reminded everyone that the Terps were 6-2 in the ACC while North Carolina was only 2-6 (now 2-7). It was a far cry from the unexpected 88-85 overtime victory over the eventual national champions a year ago.

To say Maryland (16-6, 6-2 ACC) has relished the underdog role in recent years would paint an incomplete picture. With deficiencies in the frontcourt and doubts surrounding Gary Williams’ ability to recruit top-notch talent to College Park in recent years, the Terps played the part out of necessity.

The mere thought of an upset against the Dukes and—until this season—North Carolinas of the college basketball world was more dependent on smoke and mirrors and near-perfect performances than the Terps simply playing their brand of basketball.

But this season, led by a triumvirate of senior captains (Vasquez, Landon Milbourne, and Eric Hayes) and the arrival of freshman Jordan Williams, arguably the best post player at Maryland since Lonny Baxter, the Terps expect to win every time they walk on the floor and have won quite convincingly at times with three 20-plus-point victories in the ACC.

When they do win, it’s business as usual. There was no celebration or surprise in the locker room after the blowout win over the Tar Heels. Instead, players were working out in the weight room immediately following the game in what has become a regular part of Maryland’s post-game routine.

“I’m not surprised [with the success] because I know how hard we’ve worked,” Milbourne said. “We deserve the right to do that. We worked so hard in the preseason, and we’re working hard now. We’re not changing anything; even though we’re getting wins, we’re not getting complacent.”

Complacency will be the furthest thought from the Terrapins’ minds as they travel to Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday afternoon to take on their biggest rival and ACC-leading Duke (20-4, 8-2 ACC). After the Terps dropped three games to the Blue Devils last season, including an embarrassing 85-44 debacle in Durham, Maryland has its eyes on a victory to seize control of the conference.

As if playing in front of the Cameron Crazies wasn’t already a daunting task, Saturday’s game will be Mike Krzyzewski’s 1,000th game at Duke, as numerous former players will return to Durham to join in the celebration. And just for good measure, it’s also the Hall of Fame coach’s 63rd birthday.

No problem, right?

While the cancellation of Wednesday’s game against Virginia provided an entire week for Maryland to prepare for the Blue Devils, it now forces the Terps to play three games in five days, as they’ll make up the game against the surprising Cavaliers on Monday night before turning around to play at NC State on Wednesday.

The deck certainly appears stacked against the Terps on Saturday, but Duke forward Lance Thomas is doubtful after sustaining a knee injury in the Devils’ win over North Carolina on Wednesday night, a significant blow to their defense and an invitation for Milbourne to have a huge performance in Durham.

It will also be Vasquez’s final trip to Cameron, a place the eccentric senior calls “my house.” Despite the bold label, the last time the Terps won in Durham was 2007 when Mike Jones starred with 25 points and a vivacious freshman Vasquez did not flinch in contributing 13 points and 12 assists to the 85-77 victory. Vasquez would like nothing more than to add a second win at Cameron to his brilliant career, especially after an abysmal four-point performance there last season.

A sterling performance and a win on Saturday would not only catapult Vasquez into the lead for ACC Player of the Year honors but would also conjure up memories of Juan Dixon’s 28-point performance in a win at Cameron amidst the pomp and circumstance of Shane Battier’s senior night in 2001.

Shaking off an early-season slump, Vasquez has simply been brilliant this year, twice earning ACC Player of the Week honors and averaging a team- and career-high 18.1 points per game while playing more within the parameters of the flex offense. Maryland will need a huge performance from its leader to secure the win at Cameron.

This next week may very well determine whether the Terps are playing for a No. 4 or 5 seed in the NCAA tournament down the stretch or a more pedestrian seven or eight seed. Maryland still lacks a win against a top-25 RPI team (0-3) and was unable to secure any notable wins in its non-conference schedule. A road win over a top-10 opponent—and their biggest rival—would go a long way in validating the Terps’ claim as a top-25 team and a dangerous group moving into March.

Maryland may not pull out the victory at Duke on Saturday, but it’s a far more likely outcome than anything resembling last season’s 41-point loss. Williams’ team firmly believes it’s every bit as good as Duke—if not better—so don’t be shocked if it happens.

The Terps certainly won’t be.

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