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Four Things We Learned from the Terps' Loss to Duke

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1. The phrase "(Insert team name) can play with anybody in the country" is one of the most overused cliches in all of sports, but the Terps proved tonight that they truly can play with anybody. 

It doesn't get much harder than facing the unanimous #1 team in the country on their home floor.  Add in the fact that the unanimous #1 team is coached by Mike Krzyzewski and the home floor is Cameron Indoor, and you've got what constitutes one of the toughest tasks in all of college basketball.  And yet, the Terps went into Durham and scared the heeby jeebies out of a very very good basketball team.  I'm pretty sure Gary wasn't the only coach sweating last night. 

For forty minutes, Maryland held suit with the nation's best in a game they really had no business being in.  Aside from Jordan Williams (who we'll get to later) Duke held matchup advantages at every position.  Yet, watching this game you would have thought this was one of those evenly matched classic MD/Duke games from the late 90s.  The hustle and effort that the Terps displayed last night is a testament not only to the players, but to Gary Williams, as well.  He had his guys ready to go, and they fought hard for forty minutes. 

As for what it means for the rest of the season, well, a loss is still a loss.  Maryland is (0-2) in ACC play, in search of a marque win, and in need of a strong ACC record in order to have a shot at getting their name called on Selection Sunday.  After coming oh so close against some of the nation's best, the Terps really need to start winning basketball games.  But this is one last moral victory we should allow them to have.  Losing a nailbiter to the top team in the country at their home place is nothing to be ashamed of.

2. Cliff Tucker may be inconsistent and down right maddening at times, but after Jordan Williams, he's the best scorer Maryland's got.

Whether or not Cliff Tucker is a starter or the first guy off the bench, (my vote goes to first off the bench), he's probably the second or third most important player on this team.  

Let's count the reasons why:

1. He's the closest thing Maryland has to a 3-point threat.

2. He's the team's second leading scorer at 11.1 PPG. 

3. He can beat you in a bunch of different ways (mid-range jumper, 3 ball, acrobatic reverse layups in transition, etc.)

4. He hit that buzzer beater against GT last year.

OK, so #4 has no relevance to this conversation, but the point still stands: Cliff Tucker is emerging as scoring option numero dos for this ball club, and how well Maryland holds up throughout this ACC schedule may very well depend on Cliff settling into his role, gaining more confidence, and increasing his points and willingness to pull the trigger.  

He seems to be at his best against the best, and showed it again last night with 14 points on 6-13 shooting and 7 boards.  But he's going to have to muster up that kind of effort more consistently if this team is going to make some noise in the ACC and make the Tourney.  The Terps desperately need another consistent scoring option after Jordan Williams, and Tucker is the prime candidate to fill that role.  

At this point, we know what we're getting from Jordan, Dino, and Sean.  The freshmen have been good, but showed tonight that they're still just freshmen.  Cliff's been here four years.  Cliff's complained about his role in the past.  Cliff's had an enigmatic career to this point.  And Cliff has a chance to make us forget all that by putting this team on his back for the final two months of the season.  I've got no idea whether he will do it or not, but in many ways, it would be a fitting way to end his career.  

3. Don't look now, but the Terps are really really good defensively.  

How good?  It's tough to judge.  But KenPom has Maryland ranked as the 3rd best defensively efficient team in the country.  Not 30th.  Not 300th.  The third best defensive team in all of college basketball.  

KenPom also has the Terps ranked 10th in opponents' field goal percentages.  

Rankings from a computer generated program are nice and all, but how about on the actual court?  Well, the Terps defensive effort is what kept them in this game last night.  They held Duke (the #2 rated offensive team according to KenPom) to just 40.3% from the field and 28.6% from three.  Both were season lows for the Blue Devils.  Maryland also forced Duke into 17 turnovers, the second most they've had all season.  Bottom line is that this is a damn good defensive team and that's one of the reasons I'm not panicking yet.   

The Terps will get better.  Gary noted at his post-game news conference how much the team has improved since N ovember, and now that he's figured out a lineup that seems to work, the improvement of this team will continue.  Playing great defense, and bringing the kind of intensity the Terps brought last night, are two characteristics the team can embrace and build on the rest of the way. 

4. If Jordan Williams stays all four years, he will go down in the same class as Dixon, Baxter, and Vasquez, as an All-Time Great Terp.

Technically the title of the post is "Four Things We Learned," so I really do feel bad having a separate point for Jordan Williams every time I write this.  After a game like this, I'll try to sit back and think of the four biggest things that stuck out to me about the game.  And every time the performance of Jordan Williams is one of those things.

Williams rocked Cameron Indoor last night to the tune of 23 points and 13 rebounds.  That's 9 straight double-doubles for those of you counting at home.  

His improvement from freshmen to sophomore year has been remarkable, and when you compare his numbers this season to that of Lonny Baxter's sophomore season, you gain an appreciation for how good this kid is:  

JW is averaging 18 PPG, LB had 15.6.  Jordan is shooting 58% from the floor, Lonny shot 53%.  Jordan is bringing in 11.9 rebounds per game, Lonny only averaged 8.8 his sophomore year.  Jordan is averaging just 2.1 fouls per game, Lonny averaged 3.4.  I could go on, but you get the point.  At this stage in his career, Jordan Williams is significantly outperforming one of the best Maryland big men of all time.  And the scary part is that he's getting better.

What makes Jordan so much fun to watch isn't simply the numbers he puts up but the way in which he's grown into the unquestioned leader of this team in just a year and a half.  After a game earlier this season in which the starters were pulled for a lack of effort, Williams didn't mince words when asked how he felt about the decision.  "It was about who wanted it more, and us five on the court wanted it more than (the starting five)," he said.  It's not often you see a sophomore call out three seniors and a junior for not trying hard enough.  Then again, there aren't many sophomores like Jordan Williams.

I bring this up now not because of the 23 and 13 that Jordan put up last night, or because of his double-double streak, but because of a sequence towards the end of the game that made me think "Yup. He's going to be one of my favorite Terps."  There was about three minutes left and the game was slipping away.  Jordan grabbed an offensive rebound off a Cliff Tucker missed shot, laid it in for two and got the foul.  He missed the free throw, got his own offensive rebound and dished it out to Haukur Paulsson.  Paulsson missed the shot, and Jordan Williams muscled his way between two Dukies for yet another offensive rebound.  He grabbed three offensive boards in a span of thirty seconds.  Duke be damned, Jordan Wiliiams wasn't going down without a fight.

Sometimes little flashes like that can tell you a lot about a player.  Lord knows how many times we saw Greivis hit a three, make a clutch steal, and then come right back down the court and make another spectacular bucket.  The great ones seem to have moments where they choose to take over a game and are literally unstoppable.  

Jordan isn't quite there yet, but he's well on his way.