It's as good as anything college basketball has to offer these days, Duke vs. Maryland. So many of the college basketball rivalries come and go -- Georgetown-St. John's drew fewer than 8,000 on Tuesday -- but not Duke-Maryland. The names change, the uniforms change, the rankings change, but not the desperation, not the fanaticism, not Duke's precision and determination and certainly not Maryland's relentless effort.
Duke ran off to lead by 14 points last night, as J.J. Redick shot his way to 26 points, as Chris Duhon ran and rallied his teammates and as the Blue Devils pounded the glass for a huge advantage, especially when it came to put-backs and third chances. But a great part of the beauty of Duke-Maryland is leads and deficits don't matter a whole lot. Neither team gets discouraged much, certainly not against each other.
Maryland got its deficit down to three points a couple of times, the second time with 1 minute 38 seconds remaining on a jumper by Nik Caner-Medley that made it 63-60 and had a packed Comcast Center thinking something magical might happen again in those final 90 seconds, that Maryland might do to Duke what Duke did to Maryland a few years ago when the Blue Devils stole one in the end.
And even though teams can't worry about inexperience these days, what with freshmen leading their teams to championships and sophomores passing as seasoned veterans, Maryland's inexperience showed in the end. The Blue Devils, ranked No. 1 when they came to College Park and when they left, don't miss free throws and don't beat themselves down the stretch, and Maryland had to swallow a disheartening loss at home, 68-60, after beating Duke here in each of the past two seasons -- and the Blue Devils were No. 1 on both those occasions.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski worried that his team, coming off conference victories over North Carolina State and highly regarded Wake Forest, might have a lull against a Maryland team that buries teams that have a lull. But Coach K had nothing to worry about. His Blue Devils outrebounded Maryland, 49-34, including 24-10 on the offensive glass. "Mostly effort," he said of the rebounding mismatch. "And we got them from a lot of guys, not just the big guys."
The rebounding explains how Duke got 71 shots to Maryland's 59, and how Duke overcame its worst shooting percentage of the season (33.8). "You can't have two teams playing any harder than those two teams played tonight," Coach K said.
Maryland was left to feel the sting of fighting back without any immediate and tangible reward after dropping to 1-3 in the incredibly difficult-to-negotiate ACC.
Still, these Duke-Maryland games have become a way to celebrate not only those two programs, but the ACC, and even all of college basketball. That's how glamorous the rivalry has become, especially over the last four seasons.
ESPN, to mark its 25th anniversary, asked a panel of college basketball junkies to name all-conference teams for the major leagues. Before the network had anything else of note, it brought college basketball to the masses, for better or worse grew it from a regional fascination to a national obsession. Not coincidentally, the Big East and ESPN were born virtually at the same time.
The Big East's team, announced Monday night, is Georgetown's Patrick Ewing at center, St. John's Chris Mullin at small forward, Syracuse's Derrick Coleman at power forward, Orangeman playmaker extraordinaire Dwayne (Pearl) Washington, and Connecticut's Ray Allen at the other guard. Tough to debate the selection of those five players.
The ACC, on the other hand, was much more difficult to determine. The official five, announced last night at halftime: Ralph Sampson, the three-time national player of the year, at center; two-time NCAA champ and 1992 Dream Teamer Christian Laettner at forward; the late, incomparable Len Bias from Maryland at the other forward; Michael Jordan at shooting guard and Georgia Tech's Mark Price at the point.
It's one of those wondrous sports talk radio topics that can be debated with great passion all night.
For 30 minutes before the game at Comcast that's just what a bunch of basketball junkies did, with the circle including ESPN's Dick Vitale, Dick (Hoops) Weiss of the New York Daily News, ESPN's David Aldridge (who covered college hoops for this newspaper once upon a time) and Kornheiser.
We all agreed on Sampson, Jordan and Laettner, who went to the Final Four all four years at Duke.
Vitale was the only one who didn't take Price; he voted for Duke's Jason Williams, the 2002 national player of the year.
Aldridge was the only one who didn't name Bias; after much wincing and agonizing, Aldridge took Grant Hill at one forward, which is completely understandable since Hill won two NCAA titles to Bias's none and was largely responsible for three trips to the Final Four to Bias's none.
We all regretted excluding somebody, whether it was Tech's Kenny Anderson, North Carolina's Kenny Smith, Maryland's Buck Williams and Albert King.
Kornheiser actually came up with an entire "Team of Regret": James Worthy, (the No. 1 overall NBA draft pick and the best player on Dean Smith's first NCAA championship team); Wake Forest's Tim Duncan (again, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft); Duke's Hill and Bobby Hurley and Maryland's Juan Dixon.
It's that syrupy rich tradition of great players that sends you to almost every ACC game looking for the next great player, a kid who in 10 years could bump a legend right off the list. Were there any on the floor in the Duke-Maryland game last night? Perhaps not, since the best college players don't stay long enough to make a lasting impression.
Even so, Duke vs. Maryland has the same heat it's had since the mid-1980s, when Maryland beat Duke in 1984 for its most recent ACC tournament championship. Maryland is young, but very good, definitely a threat. Duke (with only one senior playing big minutes, Duhon) is young but very, very good, bordering on great. What the Blue Devils were missing last year was size, but 6-foot-9 Shelden Williams and 6-10 Shavlik Randolph look like they spent the winter in the Nebraska football weight room. And there's 6-8 Luol Deng, who plays big, small, or in between depending on what's necessary at the moment. "Very unique" is how Coach K describes the kid.
It's also a phrase that describes his team, and its ongoing battle with Maryland, one that will move down to Durham, N.C., for a renewal on Feb. 22. They won't like each other much then, but they will play just as hard, with just as much passion, with just as much intent not to let the other guy win, which is why we can hardly wait for the rematch.