In final equation, Terps are the puzzling variable

March 31, 2001|By JOHN EISENBERG

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Maryland Terrapins are the variable in their first NCAA men's tournament semifinal game tonight.

Duke might be favored on the big stage to which it is more accustomed, but make no mistake, how the Terps play will make the difference.

More specifically, how the Terps react mentally to the epic high of getting to Final Four for the first time and the startling reality of getting here only to confront, of all teams, the rival they most want to beat.

Whew, what a stirred-up psychological brew.

Duke isn't a variable at all, of course. The Blue Devils are like a trusted pie recipe, guaranteed to come out of the oven the same every time. You know how they're going to play tonight. They'll hustle, make good decisions, shoot a ton of three-pointers, rely on Jason Williams and Shane Battier. When do they not? The only question is whether they'll make a few more or less three-pointers than usual.

How the Terps will play is tougher to predict. This is a team that barely survived a No. 14 seed in the tournament's opening round, yet destroyed top-seeded Stanford in the West Regional final; a team that has beaten the best and lost to the worst this season, generally playing to the caliber of their opponent -- not a bad quality to possess if you can get though to the Final Four.

They're certainly capable of winning tonight, as anyone who watched the first three games between the teams knows. The Terps are deeper than Duke, more effective inside offensively and, unlike prior Maryland teams, which tended to wilt at the sight of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, utterly unafraid.

Yes, Duke still has a 9-2 edge in the past 11 games between the teams, leaving no doubt as to which is dominant. But these Terps couldn't care less about such unfuzzy math. They're loose and supremely confident after outplaying the Blue Devils in two of three games this season.

"We're so confident," Maryland's Byron Mouton said yesterday, "that we need to be careful not to get too cocky."

Careful, indeed. In the end, the game will turn on what's in the Terps' heads as they balance a delicate scale of strong emotions.

Just getting to the Final Four is a triumph, enough to stamp them as Maryland's most successful team. That's terrific, but also heady and dangerous stuff with more games to play.

Duke expects to be here; Maryland is thrilled beyond words to be here. Duke wants to win the Final Four, not just get here; Maryland also wants to win it, but just getting here is enough.

Allowing even a smudge of such self-satisfaction to creep into their thinking could doom the Terps. Duke would immediately pounce.

"You have to stay hungry and maintain that desire to keep going," Mouton said. "I don't think we're going to have a problem with that. Maybe if we were playing, like, an Arizona State or some team that didn't mean anything to us other than being the team we played in the Final Four, that could maybe cause you to reflect more on what you'd done than on what you still had to do. But we're not playing some team that doesn't mean anything to us."

Uh, no. They're playing Maryland's version of the Evil Empire.

"Getting here and running into Duke," Mouton said with a smile, "is just amazing."

Talk about a guaranteed attention-getter. It's going to be all but impossible for the Terps to experience even a twinge of self-satisfaction as they take the court opposite Duke, which has made their life so miserable, routinely beating them and making them look small in comparison, a second-tier team with more hype than substance.

The Terps might be playing with house money at this point, but playing Duke for a berth in the national championship game offers perhaps the ultimate reward -- the chance to make up for years of being galled by the Blue Devils in so many ways.

Oh, sure, Duke will still be Duke, the elite of all elites, if Maryland wins tonight. But while the Blue Devils will still have their tradition and many more triumphs to brag about, Maryland will finally, at long last, have a knockout punch to throw back -- a victory in a game between the teams at the Final Four.

What a tempting, sweet vision for the Terps and their fans.

"We get measured by what Duke does, and North Carolina, too," Maryland coach Gary Williams said yesterday. "We'd like to be competitive. Those are programs people point to and say, `They do things right.' We feel like we do things right, too. Getting to the Final Four might give that some verification."

Notice that he said getting to the Final Four, not through it.

As if just getting here is enough.

Williams didn't mean it that way, but fighting the urge to resort to that rationalization is the first commandment for Maryland tonight. Thou must forget that there's really no way to lose at this point, with the team in the Final Four for the first time.

Because there is, indeed, a way to lose when the opponent is Duke and the stakes are so high.

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