The game is a week from Sunday. Maryland is likely to be 13-1. Duke is likely to be 13-1. The hype already is "unbelievable," according to Maryland coach Gary Williams.
Unbelievable, and unwarranted.
When was the last meaningful college basketball game that took place on Jan. 3? For that matter, when was the last meaningful college basketball game that took place before March?
Maryland's loss to Kentucky, Duke's victory over Kentucky, it's all just prelude. Teams measure their seasons by their performances in the NCAA tournament. Especially perennial powers like Duke.
Think Duke cares if it loses to Maryland on Jan. 3? A loss at home on Feb. 3 would carry more significance, but even then, the ACC tournament will still be more than a month away.
The same, of course, will be true for Maryland, but the Terps have emerged as the darlings of the Baltimore- Washington area, what with the NBA lockout, and subpar seasons by the Orioles, Ravens and Redskins.
More to the point, they lost to Duke by 32 and 27 points last season. Steve Francis and Terence Morris make them better, but Elton Brand and William Avery make Duke better. The question is, how much of a gap remains?
Jan. 3 will provide but the first answer. Williams has spent nearly a decade trying to raise his program to the level of Mike Krzyzewski's. This is the closest he has been, and maybe the closest he will ever be.
Williams is 2-17 against Krzyzewski since arriving at College Park. That record does not include his two victories against Pete Gaudet in 1994-95, when Krzyzewski was recovering from back surgery.
Coach K has been to seven Final Fours since 1986 (but none since '94). Coach Gary has never reached that pinnacle, and neither has his school.
Williams, 52, is two years older than Krzyzewski. But even now, as he leads perhaps Maryland's best team in a quarter-century, he's still trying to catch his rival.
Barring upsets, both Maryland and Duke will still be in the top five by the time they meet at Cole Field House. Williams believes that after Monday night's 71-60 victory over third-ranked Kentucky, second-ranked Duke should be No. 1.
"I think they're the best team," Williams said yesterday before the Terps' latest victory, a 132-57 trouncing of North Texas.
"I'm not just saying that because they're in the league. They have the depth. They have the outside shooting. They have the rebounding. They play good defense.
"Probably one thing you look at right now is their ball-handling -- I'm not sure how good they are, especially if you get [Will] Avery in foul trouble. But they have everything else."
Did you see the way Duke defended Kentucky? Maryland's half-court defense wasn't nearly that good at Rupp Arena. Rebounding is another area where Duke appears to hold an edge. And don't forget three-point shooting.
Duke advanced to the Elite Eight last season with Brand coming off foot surgery and Steve Wojciechowski playing point guard. Now Brand is healthy. And Avery is quicker than the departed Wojo.
Williams isn't convinced the change at the point will be all positive. But with Brand emerging as such a force inside, and Trajan Langdon raining threes, Duke has become almost impossible to defend.
"I liked Wojo," Williams said. "He really made them unselfish. I'm still not sure they're as unselfish this year. It could be more a problem within the team, but not so far.
"They adjusted last year when they lost Brand. They became almost exclusively an outside shooting team. [Centers Chris] Burgess and [Taymon] Domzalski were never really part of things offensively.
"This year with Brand, they've got two ways to go. They can get it inside to Brand, and still shoot really well from the perimeter. It gives them a different look offensively, where they're not one-dimensional."
Defensively, they're so deep and so athletic, they can shut down virtually any half-court offense. Against Maryland, Kentucky shot percent; against Duke, 34.9.
Again, this isn't about one game; this is about two programs, about an entire season. If the Terps win, it will be a hopeful first step. If they lose, it will be a sign of how far they need to go.
"We've played a couple of No. 1 teams here -- they never had the hype this game already has," Williams said. "How do you deal with it? You can't hide from it. It's out there."
It's out there, and it's only going to get worse. The game is a week from Sunday. The game should be terrific fun. But it's only one game in January, only a beginning, not an end.
Pub Date: 12/24/98