Nothing embodies the seasonal joy of ACC basketball like Maryland playing Duke, right? Luckily for us, that event is back: if you haven't heard, the Terrapins are traveling to Cameron Indoor to play the Blue Devils this Sunday at 8:00. That's, like, two days away, or something. I have no idea how it took me this long to get to doing a Duke preview, really. I'm surprised I wasn't doing it in December. But it's here now: after looking over Duke for a few hours, a few initial impressions are below.
As you already know, Duke's the defending national champions and are currently unbeaten, having dispatched a few top 25 teams on the way to get to where they are now: the runaway #1 team in the country (at least in the polls). And dare I say it: they might deserve the standing.
Duke is very, very good. You probably already knew that, too, but it deserved saying anyway. They're probably the best offensive team in the country: they're #1 nationally in offensive efficiency, #2 in points per game, #3 in eFG%, and #4 in 3pt shooting. Stopping Duke is a fool's errand; you only slow them enough to keep up with them. They're not too shabby on the other side of the floor, either; they're #5 in defensive efficiency, #31 in eFG%, and #35 in forced TO%. There's a reason everyone's hyping Duke: they really are that good.
The strength of this year's team is in the guards, with tons of quality backcourt depth and outside shooting. Jon Scheyer, who was the most experienced of last year's Big Three, graduated, but he was replaced by superstar freshman Kyrie Irving and a variety of sweet-shooting 2-guards. When Duke's backcourt is healthy, they're better than they were last year and are probably the best in the country.
The good news for Maryland: they're not healthy. Irving, who was probably the best player on the team, has missed the last six games and is still out with a toe injury. That means that the load that falls upon senior Nolan Smith is significantly upgraded. He's been forced to become the team's primary ball-handler (5.6 apg, 1.77 A/TO ratio) and leading scorer (19.6 ppg), and he's handled both roles admirably. He's dangerous from the outside (41% from three) but is also a solid penetrator and is one of the savvier guards in the ACC.
Meanwhile, Irving's production and minutes still needs to be replaced, and it's mostly falling to Seth Curry, the transfer from Liberty and brother of Stephen Curry, and Andre Dawkins, the sophomore guard. Both are absolute assassins on the perimeter: they combine to shoot 50% from three. Only one can starts (it has changed over the course of the season), but they receive similar minutes anyway.
Don't forget about Kyle Singler, either, who's always counted as a backcourt member to me. He's still a sharpshooter (39% from three) and is still a bit of a matchup problem for Maryland. Quite simply, they don't have anyone who has both the height and perimeter quickness to satisfactorily cover him; Sean Mosley comes closest, and will be asked to match up with Singler most of the game
Luckily, things aren't as good on the inside. It's not that Duke doesn't have height, or talented post players. It's that their big men just aren't very good or experienced yet. Jordan Williams will be the best post player on the floor in Cameron on Sunday, and that might be Maryland's only advantage. It's worth squeezing until it's dry. (Tangent: this is the same reason I believe that Ohio State will win if the two ever met - they're similar everywhere else, and Sully is massively better than anyone in the post for Duke).
Brian Zoubek, for as laughable a career as he had, was solid last year in ACC play. Unless they get a similar surprising performance, there's not a ton in the cupboard. Mason Plumlee is the best post player on the team; he's tall and athletic, sure, but he only averages 8 and 8 and isn't really a traditional back to the basket post player, which will make it difficult for him to counter Williams. He's also on the skinny side - despite being 6-10, he's only 230 pounds - and that's another J-Dub advantage.
Past that, there's the other Plumlee, Miles, who's basically another Zoubek as far as I'm concerned, and Ryan Kelly, who's similar in a lot of ways to the former Plumlee. He's not nearly as productive (6 and 3), even skinnier (6-10 and 230), and sports a far douchier haircut, but he's athletic and tall, with potential. He just hasn't realized much of it yet.
Just how exploitable in the post are they? Reggie Johnson, a Miami big man checking in at 6-10 and 300 pounds, went for 22 and 9 in just 23 minutes against the Dukies. Johnson's good, but he's not nearly as good - nor does he receive as much playing time - as Jordan. That's the type of performance that Maryland needs out of Williams to stay in the game, and that's probably not an unrealistic expectation.
You know what else isn't unrealistic? Duke doubling Williams in the post. I don't expect that to stop Williams entirely, but it should provide a few open looks on the perimeter. Passing isn't exactly Jordan's strength, and outside shooting isn't exactly Maryland's strength. Both of those will need to be better than usual.
It's also worth mentioning that Duke is an average rebounding team. It's strange to think over the past few years, but Maryland's been one of the better teams on the boards this year (mostly due to Jordan Williams, no doubt). That's another area where Maryland has an advantage, and they have to take advantage of it. If we see a repeat of last year, with a Zoubek-type randomly grabbing billions of offensive rebounds, Maryland doesn't have much a chance.
Kelly starts, but he doesn't get a lot of playing time. Duke will essentially run a three-guard set (plus Singler) for much of the game. Maryland may have to play around a little with Dino Gregory's playing time; I'm not eager to put him up against the quicker, more perimeter-oriented Singler. I'm expecting to see Maryland counter with a solid amount of four-guard sets.
This is an uphill battle for Maryland, of course, but it's not impossible for Maryland to compete. Jordan Williams is the best post player they've seen all year by a wide margin, and they have little to counter him. If they double, both Adrian Bowie and Terrell Stoglin will have to be dialed in on the perimeter. If Duke has a bad night shooting, it'll be interesting to see where they try to get points from; the post will be a tough sell with Williams inside against Plumlee. What's more important there is limiting Duke to one shot, while squeezing out an extra possession or two of their own.
Remember, too, that Duke hasn't been blowing through opponents. They beat Marquette by only 5. Same goes for Michigan State, which looks far worse than it used to. Butler lost only by 12. Heck, even Miami kept it within 11. Teams that rely too heavily on guard play aren't likely to outdo Duke in the backcourt, but teams with solid inside presences can give Duke a run. And, of course, there's the Gary Williams factor: if there's any coach you want in this game, it's Gary.
I'll have more in the next few days, including a more detailed/coherent gameday guide on Sunday.