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Maryland-Duke First Look: The Surprise Premier ACC Matchup

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If, at the beginning of the season, you asked 10 people what the marquee ACC game would be the week of Feb. 7th, I'm fairly certain all 10 would've said Duke-UNC. All 10 would also happen to be wrong.

Of course, that's before UNC's epic collapse and Maryland's surprise start to ACC play; it's not like they can really be blamed. But the UNC-Duke game, despite all the passion and hype and rivalry, was, in the end, inflated. Sure, UNC came back and fought hard, but it was their last chance at relevance for the year, a grasp at tournament hopes, an almost sad display of desperation.

Actually, it's Maryland-Duke, a rivalry that was great not long ago but has fallen to the wayside thanks to a 5 game Duke winning streak, that figures to be the best game of the week. Not only is the passion riding high for both teams (well, for Maryland), but it is this game, not Duke-UNC, that will decide sole possession of first place in the ACC. It's this game, not Duke-UNC, that pits two teams with top 25 offenses and defenses against each other. It's this game, not Duke-UNC, that will see a matchup of the two best players in the ACC.

Maryland's not taking over for the Tar Heels any time soon. But for at least a while, this is the real marquee game.

Okay, with my prose out of the way, how about we actually start to break these guys down?

First off, I wouldn't rely too much on the Duke/UNC game to judge the quality of either team - this isn't a rivalry, this is the rivalry, and UNC played at a ridiculous measure given their recent level of play. It doesn't mean that Maryland is going to beat Duke handily simply because they struggled with a team that Maryland beat handily. At the same time, though, UNC exposed some flaws in Duke that have been present all year, and we can read into those. That's actually what I'm going to use as the meat of this post - UNC took advantage of established Duke flaws, and those are present no matter who Duke is playing against. I'll start to look at Duke on a season-long basis later today and tomorrow.

First off, Duke's defense was rather lacking. They couldn't stop penetration, they had trouble rotating when UNC was able to move the ball effectively, and they were soft inside. K knows that the team is limited defensively, but I hadn't really realized it until now. UNC got a lot of open shots and otherwise good looks, and Maryland has the shooters to convert those if they are presented again.

Let me put it this way: Duke made Larry Drew look like a good point guard. I rest my case.

Secondly, Ed Davis was quiet and UNC still stuck around. UNC had an advantage inside and didn't make the most of it, but that wasn't critical. The tables will be turned for the Maryland game - Mason Plumlee and Brian Zoubek aren't exactly intimidating, but they're enough to give Duke the advantage - but UNC didn't need an advantage from their bigs. Hopefully Maryland won't either.

Offensively, they really looked like a mixed bag. Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler are all-ACC caliber, obviously, but outside of that, there was nothing. Nolan Smith was inconsistent, but this was one bad game - he's usually a big part of their offense. Outside of those three, there was basically no offense for the Blue Devils. Singler, Scheyer, and Smith were the only ones in double-figures and accounted for - get this - 82% of Duke's total offense. It's been the same way all year - the three have combined for 62% of Duke's offense on the season, and in ACC play it's been an ungodly 72%. For comparison's sake, Maryland's entire starting 5 contributes about 76% of Maryland's scoring, with 53% coming  from the Big 3. If one of Duke's best 3 goes cold, it could spell trouble. If two have a bad day, they're in scalding hot water.

Likewise, much of the offense rested on Scheyer, Singler, and Smith creating their own shot and making tough plays, something that they've done inconsistently throughout the year. There's no one in the middle to dump it off to - Zoubek has played poorly, and Mason Plumlee is still young and inexperienced. Andre Dawkins has understandably struggled since a rough midseason spell (his sister tragically died), and Duke misses his offensive ability. None even provide a diversion. UNC knew who to key in on, and those three had to deal with suffocating defense the entire game.

In short, if Scheyer, Singler, and Smith are all rolling offensively, Duke is tough, if not impossible, to stop. Shutting down at least one or two of those three is an absolute necessity. Unlike some previous games, there's no "let the star score, shut down everyone else" strategy - no one else scores anyway.

The one area Duke really scared me in was rebounding. They simply flock to the rim, and have the size to bring down boards. Despite UNC's size advantage, they refused to box out, and Duke took advantage. This has been a major problem for Maryland all year, and Duke is significantly better at rebounding - they have a +8 margin. Maryland has a +1. Not getting killed on the glass will be a difficult task, but a vital one. It doesn't do any good to stop Scheyer and Smith just to let Singler clean the glass and get a second chance.

I said I didn't want to take the UNC too seriously, and it may seem like I am, but these are problems and strengths Duke has had all year. All the UNC game should've shown you is that Duke is mortal and can be beaten. A far worse team than Maryland came close to it. That's not saying that Duke is that bad, but they aren't impossible to beat and these problems are real. These struggles aren't one-time things - they've been there the entire season, and UNC exposed them.

This is a real first look, not a preview. I'll go more in-depth with stats and whatnot later, maybe even today, but its time to get hyped for this game.