Monday, February 23, 2004

Terps Blown Out at Duke 86-63

Originally posted on "TerpTown" on the network and syndicated to Yahoo

For a program only two years removed from a national championship, Maryland's (13-10, 4-8) effort in today's 86-63 loss at Duke was embarrassing. The #3 Blue Devils (22-3, 11-2) scored too easily and when the Terps had the ball, they often looked overmatched and/or flustered.

For the first five minutes, this contest was actually a game. Maryland's John Gilchrist and Duke's Luol Deng controlled most of the early action. Gilchrist scored eight of the Terps' first 11 points while Deng scored the Blue Devils' first nine. At the first media time out with 15:09 remaining in the first half, the score was tied 11-11.

If you are a Maryland fan and were taping this game, you were fortunate if your VCR cut off at that point. After John Gilchrist's layup gave the Terps an 11-9 lead, it took 6:28 for Maryland to score their next basket. During that cold spell, Duke outscored the Terps 21-5 and took complete control of the game. At one point, Maryland turned the ball over on four consecutive possessions without getting a shot off.

Back-to-back three pointers by Nik Caner-Medley and Travis Garrison gave the Terps a brief glimmer of hope, cutting the Blue Devils' lead to 30-22. Duke responded with an 8-2 burst, however, and Maryland would not get within ten points the rest of the game.

The Blue Devils led 45-28 at halftime, and, after scoring the first five points of the second half, never led by less than 19. The fans waiting for the Terps to make a second half run like they did at North Carolina last Sunday, are still waiting. Maryland scored consecutive hoops only once after halftime and was unable to put any type of sustained pressure on the Devils.

A few numbers are worth mentioning to illustrate Duke's dominance and the Terps' futility. Maryland committed 15 turnovers while digging their deep hole in the first half and finished the game with 23. The Terps' 38.3% shooting keeps them on track to finish with their lowest team field goal percentage in 35 years. Their 51.9% free throw shooting keeps Maryland on pace to set a school record for worst team percentage since they began keeping records in the 1950-51 season.

There are many theories being tossed around by frustrated and angry fans about why the Terps are in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1992-93, the year before Joe Smith and Keith Booth arrived. Some of the less rational fans are complaining about Gary Williams' coaching. Others now think the players he recruited are not good enough to win in the ACC.

I think it's safe to say Williams did not suddenly forget how to coach, nor did he lose his ability to evaluate talent. In the 2001-02 season, he pushed all the right buttons when Maryland won the national championship. Williams was hailed as a master of putting together a roster comprised of less heralded prospects which he molded into the first championship team in Maryland's school history. To my knowledge, aliens did not come to earth and suck his brains out, nor did he suffer any massive head trauma that turned him into a softie or a moron.

So what's is the problem? The 2003-04 Maryland basketball team clearly has its limitations. First and foremost, they don't shoot very well.

The inside game, so powerful two years ago, dropped off some last year with the transition from Lonny Baxter to Ryan Randle; however, this season the inside game has been MIA most of the time. Jamar Smith has been a strong rebounder (second in the ACC), but he is making less than 43% of his shots. For a team to be effective with the inside-out approach that Gary Williams likes to take, the center must be a more effective shooter than that.

Teams can get by without a consistent low-post threat if they can make perimeter shots. Unfortunately for the Terps, they make less than 33% of their three-point attempts. Caner-Medley, who has taken the most three's on the team, shoots 31%. Chris McCray, with the third-most attempts, is just below 30%.

So Maryland's inside game is inconsistent and their perimeter shooting is ineffective. Sounds like a pressure defense that forces turnovers and creates easy shots would be a necessity here to win games. However, the Terps have demonstrated that they are not quick enough to be effective with that strategy on a frequent basis. Attempts at trapping teams in the backcourt have often resulted in opposing players dribbling right around Maryland defenders thus creating easy opportunities when the Terps don't get back on defense.

These are all significant problems, but not insurmountable. At this point in time, Maryland lacks the intestinal fortitude to be a very good team. After today's game, Gary Williams told radio analyst Chris Knoche, “We didn't have the intensity level needed to win.” How is that possible?! How can a team come out and play their most hated rival on national television in a critically important game and not be intense?

It's not as if this team has not shown that toughness and strength of character this season. They displayed it abundantly at Florida in December against the #1 team and one of the nastier, most hostile crowds I have seen in recent years. Maryland played with toughness and character when they dominated the second half in their win over North Carolina at the Comcast Center in early January.

A week after the win over the Tar Heels, Duke visited College Park with all of the usual hype and excitement. What was unusual about that game is that the Blue Devils came into the Terps home court and physically beat them up. Duke was a much tougher team that night, and Maryland has not been the same team since that night.

All of the shortcomings I listed above existed before that game, but the Terps were often able to find ways around them to win. Beginning with the Blue Devils' visit, Maryland has staggered into a deep funk causing a 3-6 record including three losses at home.

This reminds me in some ways of the last real slump the Terps endured back in 2001. It began with the infamous Duke game at Cole Field House where the Blue Devils made up a ten-point deficit in the last 54 seconds and won the game in overtime. That sent Maryland into a tailspin where they lost five of six games and spurred talk of them having to settle for a NIT bid. That fifth loss was the debacle against Florida State (the last game the Terps ever lost at Cole Field House) that saw the team leave the floor to a chorus of boos.

The 2001 team bounced back in historic fashion, winning 10 of 11 games and earning the school's first trip to the Final Four. We all know how much talent that Maryland squad had, but they also had toughness and leadership. They circled the wagons and refused to quit, even when it seemed everyone else had given up on them.

Does the 2003-04 Terrapin team possess any of those qualities? Will they stop worrying so much about the officiating and just concentrate on playing? Even when calls don't go their way, will they just hunker down and, instead of feeling like victims, become more determined to overcome the situation?

Will this team eliminate or at least severely reduce the mental lapses that seem to be coming more frequently, not less? Not to single him out, but Chris McCray's play in the second half, when he caught an inbound pass with :01 on the shot clock and didn't even look at the basket, is symptomatic of this trend. McCray, rather than accept the blame for making a dumb mistake, appeared to make excuses to Williams when Gary started yelling at him. This earned McCray a seat on the bench (probably covered with super glue) and he never reentered the game.

Williams has been very careful not to make excuses for this squad. The players, unfortunately, have often not followed his lead. Someone needs to hate to lose so much that they make life miserable enough for their teammates that they will also hate to lose. That player then needs to make clutch plays to demonstrate that he will not allow his team to be defeated. John Gilchrist did this in the Terps' win at Virginia, but neither he nor anyone else has stepped up to that level on a consistent basis this season.

This group of players is a good group of young men. They appear to get along well with each other and, according to Coach Williams, work hard in practice and do everything he asks of them. It is clear they do not like to lose, but they are such a low-key group that perhaps they don't HATE losing. The best thing that could happen to these players is for someone to go off in the locker room and challenge himself and everyone in there, then go out and answer that challenge. If a leader emerges, the others will follow.

It's not too late to rekindle what they had in December and early January and salvage this season, but there are only a few sands left in the hourglass.

Notes From Under the Shell
Duke has now won 40 consecutive home games, tied with Pittsburgh for the longest active home court streak in the nation. The Blue Devils' last loss at home was to Maryland on February 27, 2001. The last team besides the Terps to win at Cameron Indoor Stadium is North Carolina. The Tar Heels defeated Duke 85-83 on February 1, 2001. Ironically, that was the Blue Devils' first game after their “Gone in 54 Seconds” win at Maryland.

Maryland remains in seventh place in the ACC standings at 4-8, and is now closer to falling into the dreaded play-in game than they are to sixth place. The Terps now lead eighth place Virginia (4-9) by only 1/2 game and last place Clemson by 1½ games. Maryland's RPI ranking of 35 going into this game still gives them a chance of earring a NCAA bid.

Duke has won their last three meetings with Maryland, and Gary Williams' record as Terps' head coach vs. Duke stands at 8-28.

Duke has been ranked in the Top 10 the last 18 times they have played Maryland.

The Terps don't have long to shake this loss off since they face Clemson on Tuesday night in an 8:00 PM game at the Comcast Center. The game will be televised regionally on the Raycom/Jefferson Pilot network. This IS a must win game. Coach Williams said after today's game, “We need support now, not just when we're national champions.” If Maryland loses their fourth in a row to the last-place Tigers, it's time to prepare for the NIT.


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