The next four days may show whether the Maryland Terrapins are true contenders once more.
The No.17 Terps visit No.19 Wake Forest tonight before playing host to No.1 Duke on Saturday. A sweep establishes the defending national champions as serious Final Four contenders for the third straight year, a split offers encouragement and losing both makes expecting to survive long in March simply madness.
“When you play two ranked teams and one on the road, you find out a lot about your team,” coach Gary Williams said. “The top teams are all finding out. You’re going to lose some games. You just have to focus on one game. Wake Forest is too good to look past. They’re a ranked team playing at home. I don’t get into who we play as the week goes on.”
Certainly, Duke (11-0) is the marquee game as Maryland’s leading rival, but Wake Forest (10-1) is dangerous despite losing to Duke 77-54 on Sunday, after which coach Skip Prosser said the Demon Deacons were “really pounded.” Several Maryland players admitted watching the game, but wouldn’t concede looking past Wake Forest. After all, it’s only the Terps’ second road trip after an 80-74 overtime loss to Indiana on Dec.3. There are no safe havens along Tobacco Road as Maryland (9-3) seeks only its second straight and sixth overall 3-0 ACC start in 49 years.
“A lot of guys will experience different atmospheres,” guard Drew Nicholas said. “I think it’s been good for us to play so many games early at home. Playing away is like going against the world. It seems like you’re a little bit tighter as a team.”
Freshman guard Chris McCray conceded having road jitters after not playing against Indiana.
“I think I’m in for a rude awakening,” he said. “I know we’re not going to have the fans there to back you up when you miss a shot.”
Instead, the Terps hope for their fourth straight early blowout. Maryland led Florida State 20-2 on Saturday en route to an 89-62 victory after starting 20-4 in its two prior victories. Another big lead would certainly calm younger players.
Integrating the four seniors with four freshmen has been the early season’s focus. If Wake Forest jumps to an early edge, Maryland won’t panic.
“We just can’t get rattled early,” forward Tahj Holden said. “They’re going to try to beat us in the first couple minutes, but if we take their punches and trade some back we’ll be OK.”
Still, Williams wondered how well players will adapt away after playing nine of 12 games at Comcast Center plus two at nearby MCI Center.
“All the good road teams I’ve ever seen play pretty close to the same as they do at home,” he said. “They don’t change up much. They don’t play with any more caution. We have to show we’re aggressive.”
But are the Terps also ready for a tight finish? Maryland lost to Indiana and Florida (69-64) in its only close finishes, lacking the final knockout.
“We’re ready to go basket for basket,” guard Steve Blake said. “We’re not trying to prove we’re better than last year’s squad. We’re trying to prove that we’re a good team for this year.”
The Terps’ overlooked field goal defense (35.3 percent) leads the ACC and is No.5 nationally. However, Williams said not having Comcast fans backing the Terps on both ends will prove challenging.
“When you play at home and have the crowd it’s easy to play good defense,” he said. “When you’re on the road that’s when you find out about your defense. There’s no crowd to pick you up. If things aren’t going well you have to dig from within. Hopefully, we’ve improved enough where can now do that.
“This time of year you build. Now let’s get better. We’re still not as good as we think we can be.”