Earlier this week on Wednesday night the Duke Blue Devils faced off against the Maryland Terrapins in an ACC game coming just before the halfway point of conference play for both teams. Maryland had already lost once to Duke on the season, a 71-64 final in Durham back on January 9th. For Maryland, Wednesday night’s game represented a chance for a little revenge, not to mention a marquee win to bolster the team’s tournament resume. For the Blue Devils, a victory would count as another quality road win and further solidify Duke’s place as one of the elite teams in the country despite looking vulnerable after picking up their second loss of the season just a few days prior at St. John’s.
Duke came into this season looking like the runaway team of the year, highlighted by the stellar play of freshman point guard Kyrie Irving. However, after a toe injury sidelined Irving (he just got his cast off on Thursday), Duke suddenly became mortal again, and expectations for a run to a second straight national championship diminished somewhat. It still looked like the Blue Devils would run away with the conference title in a relatively weak ACC this year (and it still does), but there would probably be some bumps on the road. Maryland has played Duke as tough as any ACC team over the past decade, and the fans at College Park were chomping at the bit for another shot at their pedigree rival from the South.
Coming out of the gate it looked like it was going to be a close game, as the Terps played with a high level of energy and star forward Jordan Williams established himself in the low post early. Maryland repeatedly broke through Duke’s zone defense to get into the lane and set up open looks close to the basket. However, as the game wore on and dropped under 10 minutes remaining in the first half, the tables had turned and it was Duke getting into the lane on offense. Duke transitioned to man defense, and although the Maryland guards were still finding success in getting around their defenders on the way to the hoop, nobody was finishing, and opportunities for easy baskets were wasted on numerous occasions. At the break Maryland found themselves down 7, and in the second half it was all Duke. The Terrapins continued to struggle offensively, and the Blue Devils consistently capitalized on turnovers by their opponent, knocking down fast break three-pointers that prevented Maryland from ever getting within reasonable striking distance for a comeback. The game concluded with an 80-62 final score, and no doubt a great deal of disappointment for the Maryland students who had showed up hours prior to the tipoff to get ready for the game.
The bad news for Duke’s opponents, which could potentially include Ohio State if both teams make it far in the NCAA Tournament, is that the Blue Devils really are very solid. Even without Kyrie Irving the team has plenty of scoring firepower and talent. Don’t forget that Kyle Singler started the year as a pre-season All-American, and despite his solid play thus far has been surpassed by teammate Nolan Smith as a frontrunner for such post-season accolades. Lapses in defense against Duke are particularly deadly, as the team has about five guys that will consistently knock down open jumpers, especially on the pull-up three’s that were seen against Maryland.
The good news for Duke’s opponents is that they don’t have one guy who can simply overpower the other team. They have great balance, as evidenced by the fact that seven different players get at least 17 minutes per game on average, but even with Smith and Singler they don’t have an athlete for whom the other team won’t be able to find an answer. They are so solid that this usually doesn’t matter (see last year’s championship team), but it does open the door for a team that can man up and avoid leaving guys open (see Florida State this year). Defensive intensity is the key to beating Coach K’s team – relentless, disciplined defense. You won’t be able to “out-Duke” Duke, so if you try to just play a focused, fundamentally sound game you will likely lose. Instead, a win will require calculated energy, being very conscious of how tight you are sticking on your man.
Considering a Duke-Ohio State matchup in particular, I think that Nolan Smith could give Aaron Craft some trouble with his on-ball pressure. If Craft could get the ball into an offensive set, then Ohio State would be fairly well-equipped to score. Maryland’s ability to drive the lane suggests that the Buckeyes should look to Buford and Lighty to follow suit, using their athleticism rather than relying on outside jumpers. I don’t think that the Plumlees could match Jared Sullinger physically, as Sully presents the overpowering physical presence discussed above that is not found on Duke’s team this year. On the offensive end the Plumlees would likely be more effective, and we may struggle if their shots are falling (Miles Plumlee is a BJ Mullens-esque player). Deshaun Thomas could be a big key in a Duke-Ohio State game due to his inside-outside skills and ability to provide an additional rebounding presence.
Moving on to Maryland, I think Ohio State would have a more significant advantage in terms of both size and scoring. Sullinger-Williams would be a battle if the two found themselves guarding each other, which would inevitably be the case once Craft replaced Dallas in the lineup given that Williams is a hefty 6’10 and 260. Interestingly, Dallas may be more important against Maryland than against other opponents, as the Terrapins’ strength is getting to the basket. The Buckeyes could probably afford to sag a bit on the perimeter, as Maryland is definitely not a great shooting team, and instead focus on shutting down the paint.
The thing about Maryland is that they play really, really hard. They are admirable in the way they keep going and going, channeling the energy of Gary Williams. Unfortunately for the Terps, the energy doesn’t translate into baskets. The team seems to have good chemistry, and could be characterized by their defensive intensity, but a will to win only goes so far. Rather than being the classic “live by the three, die by the three” team, Maryland’s strategy is penetrate-and-dish. Much the same as the result against Duke, Ohio State could reasonably be expected to wear down Maryland over the course of the game and have enough offensive firepower to put the game out of reach in the end.
Overall, even though the Big Ten prevailed in this season’s Big Ten-ACC Challenge, it was clear that the ACC is still a conference of tough teams. An interest in playing either Maryland or Duke in the NCAA’s would not be out of a desire for an easy win compared to a top team from the Big East or the Big 12, but rather for the chance to pit our current Buckeye team against one of the historically great programs.