COLLEGE PARK -- These teams play in the same conference?
Maryland is the Little Engine That Could. Duke is the Locomotive That Does. One chugs. The other hums. One skids off track. The other glides on steel wheels.
Maryland has come a long way in three seasons under Gary Williams. But last night's 83-66 loss to top-ranked Duke was a grim reminder that Maryland still has a long way to go.
The capacity crowd of 14,500 at Cole Field House might think it unfair comparing a team under NCAA sanctions to the defending national champion. But hey, they do both play in the ACC.
Duke right now is the yardstick, not only for Maryland, but the entire nation. Duke has been to four straight Final Fours and five in the last six years. Duke just keeps getting better and better.
This team is perhaps the most athletic in coach Mike Krzyzewski's 12 years. It is deep and experienced and balanced -- in other words, well beyond Maryland's grasp.
At times last night's game was almost painful to watch. Duke (9-0) would run the floor and touch pass two or three times to create a layup. Maryland (7-5) would struggle with the most basic skills -- passing and catching, dribbling and shooting.
As always, the Terps fought valiantly, cutting a 17-point deficit to nine in the first half, two 23-point deficits to 14 in the second. They opened in a zone defense. They applied full-court pressure. They scratched and clawed, all to no avail.
The fact is, only one Maryland player (Walt Williams) would start at Duke. Meanwhile, every Duke starter would be at least the second best player at Maryland, and a few subs would start.
So far to come, so far to go.
It's enough to discourage anyone.
"I look at it the other way," said the indefatigable Gary Williams, who is now 0-6 against Duke at Maryland. "Take a good look at that Duke team. If you're smart, you learn. It took them time. They had one winning season and two losing seasons in Mike's first three years. But they built it right."
Williams' memory is perfect -- Krzyzewski's first three Duke teams were 17-13, 10-17 and 11-17. But by his sixth year, he had the Blue Devils in the Final Four. And since 1986, his winning percentage is .812.
The turnaround probably won't happen that quickly at Maryland, due to the sanctions. But this is the last year the Terps are ineligible for the NCAA tournament, and the strength of Williams' recruiting class reflects the brave new world that awaits.
The goal is to get the program to a level where it can almost operate itself. Krzyzewski seems to plug in another freshman standout each year. The latest is 6-foot-11 Cherokee Parks, the eventual replacement for senior center Christian Laettner.
The Blue Devils lost only one player from their national championship team -- guard Bill McCaffery. This season they're a blend of wonderfully diverse talents and interchangeable parts.
Laettner likely will be one of the top five picks in the NBA draft. Junior point guard Bobby Hurley is one of the nation's premier floor leaders. Sophomore swingman Grant Hill is simply the game's next great player.
Junior forward Thomas Hill last night became the fourth different Blue Devil to score 25 points in a game. Walt Williams matched that total, but he's the only Maryland player to reach it this season, and probably the only one who will.
Poor Garfield Smith missed three consecutive shots on one sequence. He and Vince Broadnax were a combined 5-for-22, but for the first time in three games, at least Maryland shot better than 40 percent -- 40.3, to be exact.
Everything is an effort for the Terps, who have lost four straight, not to mention 15 of their last 16 to Duke. To a man, they preach the importance of playing 40 solid minutes. But they lack the talent and depth to get it done.
It kills Gary Williams that such a hard-working team is incapable of producing better results. He loves this group, but if it is remembered for anything, it will be for returning life to the program through its sheer desire.
"What I like about them is they like each other, like playing together," said Duke senior co-captain Brian Davis, who played high-school ball against Walt Williams, Evers Burns and Vince Broadnax while at Bladensburg.
Davis said Maryland is on the verge of becoming an excellent team -- "I don't think it's a matter of them coming up. They're right there" -- but last night was not the right time to make that case.
These teams play in the same conference, but not the same league. The Little Engine That Could keeps chugging, but it's a long way to that locomotive steaming ahead.