One opponent stands out above all the rest for Maryland fans: the Duke Blue Devils.
For the third time this season, Maryland will play Duke, this time in the ACC Tournament. A 75-62 win over Wake Forest moved the Terrapins into the matchup against the Blue Devils Friday night in Greensboro, N.C.
Last time the Terps faced Duke, Maryland won an 83-81 nail-biter on a pair of last second free throws from freshman Seth Allen. The Duke team that lost in College Park that night is different than the one that will suit up tomorrow night in Greensboro, largely because of the return of senior forward Ryan Kelly.
Since Kelly came back on March 2, Duke has run off big wins over Miami and North Carolina. Duke again looks like the early season juggernaut that ran off impressive wins over Louisville, VCU and Minnesota.
When Kelly went down Jan. 8 against Clemson, the Duke team changed. Without Kelly in the lineup, opposing defenses could collapse on All-ACC big man Mason Plumlee, forcing the Duke shooters to hoist more and more 3-pointers. The offense lost its balance, and in turn, the Blue Devils lost four games.
With Kelly in the lineup, Duke is undefeated. A stretch power forward that can hit open 3-pointers, he provides a veteran defensive presence.
In the Terps first matchup against Duke in late January -- which the Devils played without Kelly -- what seemed like a close game ended in a 20-point Duke win. In that contest, Plumlee dominated Maryland sophomore big man Alex Len. In Maryland’s victory over Duke, Len showed Plumlee who was boss.
Tomorrow night’s game should again center on the centers. If Len can establish his presence early, Maryland could give Duke fits. If Plumlee shows his skill and athleticism, it could be a long night for the Terps.
The Terps have plenty of pieces capable of big nights, sophomores Dez Wells and Nick Faust played well against Wake. Freshmen Seth Allen, Jake Layman and Charles Mitchell can all provide double digit scoring and contribute in other ways as well.
But the Maryland roster will struggle to match the firepower of a hot-shooting Duke squad, and defending the 3-point shot will be a must if the Terps want to pull off the upset.
In the first half against Wake Forest, Maryland struggled to control the ball, a recurring theme this season. At halftime the Terps trailed the lowly Demon Deacons, a team Maryland beat twice this season.
In the second half, the Terps showed poise and a commitment to hard-nosed defense. It worked, as Maryland outscored Wake 45-27 in the final 20 minutes.
To beat Duke, Maryland will need a similar performance, but for all 40 minutes.