CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Now that the Maryland Terrapins have shown they know how to win on the road, it is time for them to erase one more blemish from their recent past and sustain the momentum that is carrying them as one of the nation's elite teams.
And what better place for the No. 3 Terps to make another mark than University Hall, where they have been known to stumble?
Junior point guard Steve Blake, like every other Maryland player besides seniors Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter, has never experienced a victory at Virginia, which has won the past two meetings while playing host to Maryland. Last year, the Cavaliers dropped a 99-78 thud on the Terps, who were four days removed from their infamous, last-minute collapse against Duke and primed for their worst slump of the season.
Things are different this time around. Maryland (16-3, 6-1) has won eight of its past nine games, is tied with Duke atop the Atlantic Coast Conference standings, and is looking to close out the first round of the league schedule tonight by winning for the fourth time in five tries on the road. Its only conference loss came at Duke two weeks ago.
Blake relishes the chance to square the score with No. 8 Virginia (14-3, 4-3), which brings quickness, experience, an up-tempo preference and home-court advantage the Cavaliers must exploit to remain within serious striking distance of ACC title contention.
"It's a great place to play basketball. Virginia's fans are a little whacked in the head. The fans are loud. The fans are obnoxious. The fans are right on top of the court," Blake said. "It's a huge game for them and for us."
A victory would send Maryland into February on a tremendous roll. It would leave the Terps with a friendly schedule, as they move toward a Feb. 17 rematch with Duke that could decide the regular-season, conference championship. Five of Maryland's final eight games are at Cole Field House.
"To just have one loss [in the ACC] would look good going into the second half, but it doesn't guarantee anything," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "Our [top] seven guys are very experienced. That's how we win on the road. I think we're playing pretty well right now."
The Terps could not be equipped much better for a Charlottesville invasion. For one, Virginia is not at full strength, as senior swingman Adam Hall has missed the past five games with a right foot injury and might see action tonight. Hall, one of the league's top leapers in the league, hurt the Terps badly here a year ago.
And, as they did last year, the Cavaliers have played like a team with a suspiciously high ranking. They have lost at home to North Carolina State, have been blown out at Clemson and have struggled to get past hapless North Carolina.
Maryland, coming off of back-to-back, blowout victories at No. 24 Wake Forest and against visiting Florida State, is playing some of the stingier defense in the country, is developing one of the deeper front-courts in the game and is attacking with a backcourt on a roll, led by the remarkable Dixon.
Dixon, the first ACC player in history to record 1,800 points and 300 steals, just missed the first triple double by a Williams-coached player at Maryland, in Saturday's rout of Florida State. He needs 100 points and six three-pointers to become the first player in NCAA history to reach 2,000 points, 300 steals and 200 three-pointers.
"They play so well at home, and they're probably as athletic as anybody," Williams said of Virginia, which is 10-1 at University Hall. "They were also able to dominate the glass for a long period of time against Georgetown [in a 61-55 victory on Dec. 20]."
The Terps need to negate 6-8 junior center Travis Watson and 6-6 small forward Chris Williams (14 ppg, 6.5 ppg) on the boards. Watson leads the ACC with an 11-rebound average. Maryland figures to offset that with Baxter and Chris Wilcox on the blocks, along with backup center Ryan Randle.
But tonight's result should come down to experience, how well the turnover-prone Cavaliers handle the ball, and how much the Terps can offset guard Roger Mason Jr., one of the league's pure scorers.
It will be interesting to see how well the kids perform for the Cavaliers, who are getting notable contributions from freshmen such as point guard Keith Jenifer (Towson Catholic), shooting guard Jermaine Harper and forwards Elton Brown (9.4 ppg) and Jason Clark. Jenifer has started six games and has allowed Mason to move back to shooting guard, after replacing the injured Majestic Mapp earlier in the season.
"They can go inside and outside," said Blake, who averages 7.3 assists. "Virginia has played well this year, especially at home. We hope they're too overconfident."