Terps prepare for big game vs. Duke
For the Maryland Terrapins, much rides on Saturday’s game against the No. 1 ranked Duke Blue Devils. Maryland needs a win to bolster a lackluster NCAA Tournament resume, and to compound matters for the Terps of one of the team's few veterans, junior guard Pe'Shon Howard, will sit out against the Blue Devils with a suspension for violating team rules.
Earlier this season, the Terps looked like a sure thing for the NCAA Tournament. At one point Maryland hung together 13 wins in a row, mostly over a weak non-conference schedule, but the Terps also beat George Mason and Northwestern during that stretch.
Once Maryland hit the conference portion of its schedule, the team sputtered.
Poor offensive execution and ball handling hindered the young Terps squad in ACC play. Strong defense and rebounding kept Maryland in most games, but still, the results were more losses than wins. During their last five games, the Terps have won just twice, and those wins came against the bottom of the conference by beating Wake Forest and Virginia Tech.
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said that while he may at times be frustrated with his young team, fans need to remember that Maryland plays a rotation of mostly freshmen and sophomores.
"We're young, and we've got to get better. It's not just about Duke on Saturday, it's about the future," Turgeon said. "I'm frustrated I let expectations get ahead of where we are. Obviously we don’t have the leadership in the upper classmen that we need."
After five days to let last Sunday’s 80-69 home loss to Virginia sink in, Maryland (17-7, 5-6) gets its best chance at a season-defining win. Duke (22-2, 9-2) is certainly one of the best teams in the country, and the Blue Devils defeated the Terps 84-64 less than a month ago in Durham.
In that game, Duke freshman Rasheed Sulaimon led the Blue Devils with 25 points. It was a career game for Sulaimon, and his hot shooting made the difference.
"Down at their place the deciding factor was the 3-point line," Terps senior guard Logan Aronhalt said of the Duke loss. "They lit us up and we never gave ourselves a chance to win."
Despite the gaudy ranking and impressive record, the Blue Devils could still be vulnerable.
Wednesday night Duke beat its archrival North Carolina in a close contest. Duke trailed for more than half of the game against one of the less impressive North Carolina squads of the last decade, but in the end, Duke prevailed 73-68. Before the victory over the Tar Heels, Duke squeaked out a 62-61 win on the road at 11-13 Boston College.
"They figure out ways to win," Turgeon said of the Blue Devils. "That’s what makes Duke who they are."
Since senior forward Ryan Kelly went down with an ankle injury in a Jan. 8 win over Clemson, Duke has been a different team. The Blue Devils haven't necessarily struggled, but the team misses Kelly's veteran play and shooting. Legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski still has plenty of horses, especially in 6’10” senior forward Mason Plumlee. Plumlee averages more than 18 points a game to go with almost 11 rebounds.
In the first game between these two teams, much was made of the matchup between Plumlee and sophomore Maryland big man Alex Len. Each player delivered a signature dunk, but Plumlee got the better of the matchup with 18 points, compared to just eight for Len.
"Plumlee got the best of it the last time," Turgeon said, adding that Duke's big man is older and more physical than Len. But the coach also wants more motivation from his Ukrainian star.
"The only thing I told Alex after the game, I said, 'Alex, [Plumlee] looked a lot more fired up to play against you than you did to play against him, and that’s got to change,'" Turgeon said. "Hopefully when Alex gets the opportunity tomorrow, he’s really fired up to play against him."
Maryland will need to clamp down on defense against not only Plumlee but also Sulaimon and sharp shooter Seth Curry. Like many previous Duke teams, the Blue Devils have strong outside shooting that can bury an opponent focused on controlling the paint. As a team, Duke shoots more than 40 percent from deep. Curry averages 41 percent from 3-point land, and Sulaimon is just a hair under 40.
"We have to limit their 3-point attempts," Aronhalt said. "The ones they do get off we have to be there with a hand in their face."
In practice this week, Aronhalt said Maryland worked hard on staying on shooters and fighting through screens.
A dominant outing for Len could get Maryland into the win column -- not to mention cement his lottery pick status -- but he will need help from slashers Dez Wells and Nick Faust. Some sweet shooting for the Terps would help as well; Jake Layman, Seth Allen and Aronhalt are all capable of big games. Allen will get more minutes this game with the suspension of Howard, and the freshman could provide a spark for the Terps.
If Maryland wants to make the big dance, and beat Duke for the first time since 2010, its players must perform at their highest level of the season. Though the Terps have seven games remaining on their schedule, none provide the opportunity to bolster an NCAA Tournament resume like a win over Duke.