DURHAM, N.C. — DURHAM, N.C. - The Maryland Terrapins have brightened their future with possibly their best stretch of basketball, marking the latest chapter of a season colored by ups and downs.
Tonight at sold-out, raucous Cameron Indoor Stadium, the No. 16-ranked Maryland men also must confront their past.
Is there a fan who is not acutely aware of the night Maryland's promising season of high expectations took the sharpest of backward turns? Exactly one month ago, the Duke Blue Devils laid a whammy on the Terps, starting and defining a 1-5 slide that nearly sent Maryland's season spinning out of control.
Is there a Terps player or coach who has not been reminded repeatedly of the events of Jan. 27?
That would be the night the Terps spent 39 minutes schooling one of the nation's premier teams, only to waste a 10-point lead in the final 54 seconds of regulation play. That would be the night Duke pulled out a 98-96 overtime victory that put the Terps in an emotional funk. The game already has been shown several times on ESPN Classic.
Maryland (18-9, 8-6 Atlantic Coast Conference), which has since fallen out of the ACC title chase, is now a revived team in search of a third-place finish in the league. The Terps have won three in a row, beating two ranked teams along the way, while most likely earning an eighth straight NCAA tournament bid.
A victory over No. 2 Duke could serve as a watershed event. Besides putting Maryland in position to claim the No. 3 seed in the ACC tournament with a victory over visiting Virginia in Saturday's regular-season finale - the Terps could end up seeded as low as fifth with a loss tonight - a win over the Blue Devils (25-3, 12-2) would add immeasurable steam to Maryland's recent climb.
The Terps are doing their best to treat their Durham visit as a business trip where they can have some fun. After all, Maryland enjoyed itself immensely last February at Cameron, where the Terps ended Duke's 46-game home-court winning streak. The Blue Devils' only home loss since came last month against North Carolina.
"The good thing about playing in the ACC is you get to play teams twice," said senior forward Terence Morris. "We look at that first game [against Duke]. We felt we should have won that one. Now we get a chance to go down there and do it again. There's no reason why we can't do it this year."
Maryland hardly resembles the team that got blown out in Virginia, embarrassed at Georgia Tech, then reached new depths by losing at home to last-place Florida State.
During the three-game streak that has the Terps thinking once again they can make a national title run in March, Maryland has shot 51.1 percent while allowing opponents to shoot 38.1 percent. The Terps have held their three opponents, including Wake Forest and Oklahoma, to an average of 61 points. Maryland has produced 60 assists and just 33 turnovers.
Now the Terps must take down a Blue Devils team that is blessed with future NBA draft picks at every position and has lost its three games by a combined five points.
"We proved we could win down there. We know we have a chance," said guard Juan Dixon, who is on fire after struggling to find his shot during the 1-5 streak. Dixon has scored 70 points in the past three games, making 25 of 40 shots (62.5 percent).
"We gave ourselves a chance to beat Duke here, but we only played for 39 minutes," he added. "If we just play a good 40 minutes, we have a shot."
The Terps figure to have an excellent chance if point guard Steve Blake whips the outstanding Jason Williams once again. Before fouling out late in regulation - the turning point in the Jan. 27 shocker - Blake had played a major hand in forcing 10 turnovers by Williams, who leads the Blue Devils in scoring (21.0 points a game).
"If you win the battle with Jason Williams and lose the other four battles, you lose the game," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, who would be shocked to see Duke get outplayed for so long by Maryland again. For added effect, it's senior night at Cameron.
"I've never seen a game there where [Duke] has been flat," said Williams, who has tried to avoid attaching too much significance to tonight's rematch.
The Terps need to continue their stingy defensive ways against Duke, which leads the ACC in scoring average (94). Containing the trio of Williams, forward Shane Battier and swingman Mike Dunleavy - each of whom is shooting at least 39 percent from three-point range - would be a fine place to start.
Maryland also plans to ride Dixon's hot hand some more. If center Lonny Baxter continues to avoid foul trouble, he figures to neutralize Carlos Boozer inside. The Terps also cannot keep surviving without more offensive input from Morris, who has averaged 6.0 points during the 3-0 streak.
"We were all upset by the way we were playing. Now we're playing well together," said Blake, who has 18 assists and six turnovers during the streak. "We're all very confident in each other."
NOTES: Dixon was named ACC Player of the Week after combining to score 53 points in victories over North Carolina State and Oklahoma. ... Backup guard Drew Nicholas has one point in the past three games.
Opponent: No. 2 Duke
Site: Cameron Indoor Stadium, Durham, N.C.
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)