Maryland's Landon Milbourne (left) and Sean Mosley celebrate… (Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd…)
COLLEGE PARK — - At this time last year, the Maryland Terrapins were coming off a 41-point loss at Duke that left them 2-3 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. "Not our rivals," chanted the Duke students, always adept at hitting opponents where it hurts most.
To many Maryland fans, the distance between the Terps and ACC powers Duke and North Carolina seemed to be lengthening at an alarming rate.
It's hard to overstate how different the conference race feels a year later.
Duke - which improved to 5-0 last season after dealing Terps coach Gary Williams his worst-ever Maryland loss - already has two league losses. Defending national champion North Carolina has dropped its past three conference games, including two at home, to fall to 1-3.
The Terrapins, meanwhile, are 3-1 in the ACC, their best league start since 2002-03. "They're playing at a high level right now," Miami coach Frank Haith said of the Terps (13-5). "They're a very confident basketball team," said Haith, whose Hurricanes (15-4, 1-4) play at Comcast Center tonight.
After 18 games, the Terps find themselves first or second in the ACC in six major statistical categories - field-goal percentage (.486), scoring margin (plus-16.5), 3-point percentage (.390), assists (16.6 per game), turnover margin (plus-4.4) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.4).
After winning five of its past six games, Maryland is in a position that seemed almost unthinkable at this point last season - simply trying to sustain its level of play. There was little celebrating after Saturday's 88-64 rout of North Carolina State and plenty of talk about how the team has earned nothing yet.
"We're not satisfied where we're at," said senior forward Landon Milbourne, who has scored in double figures in eight straight games and is 48 points away from 1,000 for his career. "There's no reason we can't sustain it."
Williams has often said his team isn't good enough to win on nights when it is outworked. The Terps rely on a pressing, trapping defense that Haith said can "embarrass" unprepared opponents.
"Hopefully we'll be ready" for Miami, Williams said Monday. He said the goal is "to maintain what we're doing right now. That's hard to do in college basketball because you play [so many] games and they're 18 to 22 years old."
The Terps haven't won a regular-season ACC championship since 2002. Such a title isn't accompanied by an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. That spot is reserved for the ACC tournament survivor.
But Williams suggested Monday that the regular-season standings reflect important values: consistency and durability. "The winner of the regular season should be the champion of the ACC," the coach said.
The ACC is particularly competitive this year, owing partly to the departure after last season of North Carolina star Tyler Hansbrough and some top guards: North Carolina's Ty Lawson, Wake Forest's Jeff Teague, Florida State's Toney Douglas, Miami's Jack McClinton (Calvert Hall) and Duke's Gerald Henderson.
"There is tremendous parity in this league from top to bottom," Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio said Monday. "There might be seven or eight teams that can win the league."
Haith, whose Hurricanes have lost three in a row, said the Terps are well-positioned because of their experience, particularly in the backcourt.
"I look at [Greivis] Vasquez and [Eric] Hayes - guys who have been around a long time," Haith said. "When you have great guard play, their execution is going to be better."
Terps in ACC play through 4 games 08-0909-10Record2-23-1ACC st.t-6t-1PPG71.2580.25Pt diff. + 8+ 47 Discuss this story and others in our talk forums
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