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Maryland women's basketball: Previewing the Sweet 16 matchup with Duke

Previewing Maryland and Duke is not a headline I thought I'd write this women's basketball season, but thanks to the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, here we are on the edge of a Terps vs. Blue Devils showdown in the Sweet 16.

Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Whether it was the result of the teams' respective season records, some "wouldn't this be cool" type thinking by the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament Selection Committee or perhaps a bit of both, erstwhile rivals Maryland and Duke will face off in the third round of the tournament -- the one known colloquially as the Sweet 16. The court will be the most neutral possible with Maryland traveling 2,482 miles and Duke 2,574 to reach the venue. Given that both teams hosted the first two rounds, it seemed likely that this meeting was pretty much Spokane for before the first ball was tipped. And there you are.

As if you need to know

How to watch:

WHO: Duke Blue Devils (23-10, 11-5 ACC) @ Maryland Terrapins (32-2, 18-0 B1G)

WHAT: Women's basketball NCAA Tournament Regional Semifinal game

WHERE: Spokane Arena, Spokane, WA

WHEN: Saturday, March 28, 2015  7:00(ish) p.m. ET Correction: Game will tip at 4:30 pm ET

WATCH: In Person



Who's who's rivals?

Saturday's meeting will be the 81st overall between Maryland and Duke. The Blue Devils hold a 41-39 edge in the series having built their margin by virtue of a 22-13 edge in games played on Duke's home court in Durham. Maryland holds a 20-13 advantage in College Park and the schools are 6-6 in neutral court games.

Duke has dominated the series in the Brenda Frese era where they hold a 24-8 advantage. The Terps lost the first 10 times they played Duke after Frese assumed head coaching duties. Maryland's first win under Frese came on March 4, 2006, when the Terps bested the Blue Devils 78-70 in the ACC tournament semifinals. The second win came just more than a month later in Boston. Even casual Terrapins fans are likely familiar with this image:

KT Over Bales

Kristi Toliver's National Championship game-tying three-point shot over Alison Bales.

Since that shot, Duke has won six of the 18 subsequent meetings, including the last three. Of course one of Maryland's wins included another memorable moment:

And, though I don't often indulge in theatrics or trash talk, I'll advise any Maryland fans who made the trip to Spokane (or are elsewhere around the country) to counter any sass from Duke fans by simply reminding them that Maryland has one of these:

Women's basketball National Championship Banner


Who are the 2015 Duke Blue Devils

Although Duke hasn't had its best season in recent memory, it earned its No. 4 seed in the region. The Blue Devils finished the regular season 21-10 and 11-5 in the ACC. Duke is ranked 12th in RPI and played the nation's seventh most difficult non-conference schedule. It posted a 10-9 record against top 100 RPI competition, including splitting 10 games against the RPI top 25. In two of its early season losses, including the loss at Nebraska in the B1G-ACC Challenge, Duke played without senior center Elizabeth Williams.

After losing by six to Notre Dame in the ACC tournament semifinals, Duke returned to Cameron Indoor Stadium where it picked up wins over Albany (54-52) and Mississippi State (64-56) to advance to the Spokane Regional. Duke is 8-4 over its last 12 games but its coach, Joanne P. McCallie, has the Blue Devils in full slowdown and lock down defense post season mode. They have held each of their last three opponents to less than 60 points and only Notre Dame, which averages nearly 75 possessions per game, was able to threaten reaching 70.

Duke is a good, but not great, offensive squad that scores 70.1 points per game (ppg) while operating at a .969 points per possession (ppp) offensive efficiency. Neither figure puts it in the top 50 nationally. The story is a bit better defensively where the Blue Devils rank 25th in defensive ppp and are just outside the top 50 at 58.8 ppg.

For those more inclined to look at more traditional statistics, on offense they shoot 44.2 percent overall and 32.4 percent from three point range. Unlike some past Duke teams, the 2015 Blue Devils do not make extensive use of the three-point shot which comprises only 19.2 percent of their scoring. On the defensive side of these percentages, teams shoot 34.3 percent overall and 29.3 percent from beyond the arc.

Another uncharacteristic aspect of this year's squad compared to past editions of the Blue Devils is that Duke turns over the ball more than they force opponents to turn it over. The Blue Devils force just 15 turnovers per game while committing 18 and they have an overall 0.8 assist to turnover ratio.

How Duke can threaten Maryland

In general terms, this will be a game of tempo. While there is no set formula for beating Duke, they would prefer a half court game where they can use their size to constrict Maryland's offensive flow. Again, while both teams are very different from past rosters, expect McCallie to settle into a zone that she knows has given Maryland problems in the recent past. "You've got to get them in an up and down game," Frese said. "They want a half court game. We want to be in transition."

More specifically, Duke's size will certainly challenge the Terrapins. McCallie's squad has suffered from injuries and transfers and she generally uses a rotation of seven players. With that said, it a very tall and athletic rotation. The probable starting lineup will be 6'5" freshman Azura Stevens, 6'4" junior Amber Henson and the 6'3" Williams in the front court. Likely back court starters are 6'1" freshman Rebecca Greenwell and 5'10" senior Ka'lia Johnson. Kendall Cooper a 6'4" sophomore and 5'7" Mercedes Riggs are generally the options off the bench. In all, nine of the dozen players listed on the Blue Devils' roster are six feet or taller.

The length, size and quickness of Duke's front court contributes to 6.7 blocked shots per game - third best in the country. They are led by Williams who blocks just over three per contest. However, Williams excels not only clogging the middle but closing out on corner shooters as she patrols the back of Duke's zone. She can quickly transform an open corner jump shot into a highly contested one.

That size, of course, also makes Duke a formidable rebounding team. The Blue Devils pull down 12.2 rebounds more than their opponents. By rebound margin they are the third best team in the NCAA. The Terps are sixth at plus 11.4.

How Maryland can threaten Duke

The Terrapins have several options for attacking the Blue Devils. The key points will be for Maryland to press Duke and create turnovers and easy baskets. Duke doesn't have a natural point guard and has shown themselves susceptible to high turnover games several times during the season. Maryland then needs to be able to convert those turnovers into easy baskets so they are not operating the entire game against the Blue Devils' set defense.

In general, the Terps need to score and that's something Duke is adept at preventing. While they haven't played many low scoring  games, Maryland has shown themselves capable of winning them. The Terps are 4-1 in the games in which they scored fewer than 70 points. However, Maryland Will Likely need to maintain the balance they have shown all season in attacking Duke's defense and perhaps find another x-factor performance off the bench.

Against Duke, the Terps are not likely to repeat their shooting performance of 60 percent from three point range they had in the win over Princeton. First, there is the simple probability that Maryland will regress toward the mean and be successful at a rate closer to their season average particularly from behind the arc. Second, Duke's size and athleticism will make those shots more challenging. On the other hand they will need to score efficiently from long range if they hope to loosen Duke's zone.

Players to Watch

Elizabeth Williams #1, senior, forward/center, 6'3". Williams is the heart of Duke's team. It's no coincidence that Duke lost both games that Willimas missed this season. The senior leads Duke in scoring (14.4) rebounding (9.0) and blocked shots (3.06). The latter is good for twelfth in the country. However, in Big Ten play, the Terps faced three top 20 shot blockers - two of whom (Amanda Zahui B. and Alexa Hart) are in the top ten.

Azura Stevens #11, freshman, forward, 6'5". The highly touted Stevens started the season slowly but has come on of late to become Duke's third leading scorer (14.2 ppg). She shoots 52 percent from the field and will occasionally step out for a three point shot. She also pulls down eight and a half rebounds per game.

Rebecca Greenwell #23, freshman, guard, 6'1". If Williams is the heart, Greenwell may be the key. The freshman is the Blue Devils' main outside threat. She is Duke's second leading scorer by average but leads them in points. Where Stevens will occasionally shoot from three, Greenwell looks to do so. More than half of her 389 shots have come from beyond the arc. This number is also more than 40 percent of Duke's attempts as a team. She is a competent three point shooter making 36.4 percent of her shots from long distance.

What the Terps had to say

Before they left for Spokane Wednesday afternoon, Maryland's players and Coach Frese spoke to members of the media. The coaching staff used their day off on Tuesday to watch, as Frese said, "too much film of them to be quite honest.  We dissected them in our staff meeting and should be fully prepared." As for what she's seen, she added, "They're huge. They play three bigs a lot of time on the court. They're able to use their size to create some problems."

The coaches hadn't reviewed their scouting report with the players but most of the team had watched them play a few games over the course of the season.

Brionna Jones talked about the possibility of matching up one on one with Elizabeth Williams. " Last year I think it was a little overwhelming to play at Duke. This year I think with all the experience I've gained it will help me a lot." She thought Penn State, though deficient athletically in comparison to Duke, was, in terms of size and approach, the B1G team closest to the Blue Devils.

Malina Howard noted that the Terps had played against some other big post players particularly Minnesota's Amanda Zahui B. and Rachel Hollivay at Rutgers but confirmed that, "We haven't played against a back line of three posts that big. We have to make sure, even though they're big, that we go at them and get our second chance opportunities. We have to focus on boxing out and making sure that our man doesn't get the rebound and create space for one of our teammates to go get the rebound."

Laurin Mincy, Maryland's lone senior who, together with Brene Moseley is one of only two players on the current roster to have played on a team that beat Duke thinks, "They can match our athleticism so we're going to have to stick to fundamentals and I think everything else will follow suit. I think it's going to come down to rebounding in this game."

In closing, because it's Maryland and Duke in the NCAA Tournament, I can't leave you, my readers, without this: