ACC tourney page-turner: Duke-Md., the trilogy

March 09, 2002|By Mike Preston

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - It would be nice if we could skip the formalities and get down to the real purpose of the Atlantic Coast Conference men's basketball tournament: Duke vs. Maryland III.

That's what this tournament is about. It's about Gary Williams vs. Mike Krzyzewski. It's about the inside game of the Terps against the outside shooting of Duke. It's Jason Williams vs. Steve Blake, Lonny Baxter against Carlos Boozer and Chris Wilcox matching up on Mike Dunleavy.

That's why we're here. Duke-Maryland III, which could be a prelude to Duke-Maryland IV in the Final Four.

That's what everybody wants. The fans. The media. The Terps. The Blue Devils. Even conference officials, who were blatant in favoring the Terps in their 85-59 opening round win against Florida State yesterday.

What we're seeing is the undercard to Ali-Frazier, except the Terps are sleepwalking through the early rounds. They had beaten the Seminoles twice this season, once by 11 and the last time by 33. Excuse them for taking a 25-minute nap.

Today's semifinals should be better, but don't bank on any upsets. League coaches recently talked about how balanced the league is from top to bottom, but there is more smoke there than in the great Baltimore fire.

It's a two-dog race. Duke and Maryland. Maryland and Duke. Everyone else can take a seat.

The league has good players, but there is a significant disparity between the haves and the have-nots. Wake Forest has forwards Darius Songaila and Josh Howard. N.C. State has point guard Anthony Grundy. Virginia has guard Roger Mason and forward/center Travis Watson. Georgia Tech has guards Tony Akins and Marvin Lewis.

North Carolina, Clemson and Florida State mostly just have the blues.

Duke has The Big Three in Williams, Boozer and Dunleavy. Maryland can go eight deep into its roster. And when the Terps are on, they are nearly impossible to stop.

But even when they are 70 to 80 percent, they are better than the Seminoles (12-17), which is why I didn't understand why Terps coach Gary Williams was yelling and sweating through another perfectly tailored suit yesterday when Florida State cut the lead to one point.

Maybe it was because he has never won the ACC tournament, or because he was trying out a new deodorant. But these are the Seminoles, not the Blue Devils.

Florida State had trouble beating Clemson in overtime Thursday to earn the right to lose to Maryland. They have an offense that is strictly playground, in which everything is run through the high post with one or two passes, and then they go one-on-one.

It's very creative - so much, in fact, that Florida State coach Steve Robinson is expected to get fired next week.

Douglass High has more plays. Actually, that's an insult to the Ducks.

But Florida State still won four conference games this season - including a 77-76 upset of then-No. 1 Duke. That's the same number of league wins as North Carolina and Clemson, which tells you about the ACC. Don't believe the hype.

The Seminoles had an opportunity to make the game interesting in the first five minutes of the second half when guard Monte Cummings started abusing Terps guard Juan Dixon inside and outside, for 10 straight points, and then Florida State cut it to 42-41 on Trevor Harvey's three-point play with 15:10 left.

But that's when Maryland's alarm clock went off. The Terps went on a 21-0 run that put them ahead 63-41 with 9:16 left. Florida State was called for four fouls in the first 2:39 of the run and then proceeded to roll over.

Robinson could have complained about the officiating, but that would have been about as embarrassing as losing by 26 points.

"Twenty-five minutes into the basketball game, we gave ourselves every chance we could to do it," Robinson said. "We had some stretches where the shots wouldn't go down for us. Then Maryland gets hot and makes those shots. That's the difference in the game."

So now Maryland faces N.C. State in the semifinals. I'll have to suffer through another round before probably getting the game everyone wants.

I'll have to watch Williams sweat through another suit.

But it will be worth it. Duke has tradition, the best player in Williams and the best coach. Maryland has one of the most exciting young players in sophomore forward Wilcox, a good backcourt and status as a serious national contender the past two years.

There are other factors. Duke wants to avenge an 87-73 loss to Maryland on Feb. 17, and Maryland wants to become the first Terps team to win the ACC regular-season and tournament titles in the same year.

Duke and Maryland. Maryland and Duke. Can't wait.

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