- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 13, 2008

It did not take long in victories last week over Boston College and N.C. State for Maryland to establish the aspect of its offense it needed most.


It is a sequence the Terrapins methodically tuned in recent weeks, turning what once appeared to be an inert offense into one that has scored at least 80 points in five of the last six games.

“It’s a lot more comfortable,” sophomore forward Landon Milbourne said. “Nobody wants to sit and watch people dribble all day anyway.”

And no one will have to when Maryland (16-8, 6-3) visits No. 2 Duke (21-1, 9-0 ACC) tonight at Cameron Indoor Stadium, a meeting of not just the ACC’s hottest teams but arguably the league’s best passing squads as well.

The Blue Devils have prospered all season in part because of their ability to make extra passes whenever they are forced into halfcourt play, inevitably finding an open man on the perimeter before delivering a 3-pointer.

Maryland, though, underwent a far greater evolution. The offense looked awkward and disjointed as the Terps stumbled to a 6-6 start, and poor shot selection and lackadaisical passing were among the major problems.

That has changed dramatically since the start of ACC play. The Terps are averaging 18.6 assists in league games, up from 16.4 in the nonconference season, and are one of only two teams (N.C. State is the other) to increase that total in league play.

The improved passing also permitted Maryland to boost its scoring (71.5 to 78.7) and assist-to-turnover ratio (0.94 to 1.27) from nonleague to ACC play.

“A lot of people at the beginning of the season came out trying to do too much and just trying to go out there and get their points and try to be the star,” guard Cliff Tucker said. “I think we just settled it down. We knew there was a lot of players on this team who were good, so if we passed the ball more our scoring would go up.”

When put into practice, it’s morphed the Terps into a formidable opponent. Even in losses to Duke and Virginia Tech, Maryland produced impressive offensive stretches.

During their four-game winning streak, the slick-passing Terps at times have created the illusion their opponents were almost glued to the court, whipping the ball around the perimeter before an open shot materializes on the perimeter or in the paint.

“If you’re moving the ball the way we did, especially in the second half [against N.C. State], you’re definitely going to have guys on their heels and scrambling to get to the man,” guard Eric Hayes said. “It’s definitely something that can make it look like they’re moving in slow motion a little bit because we’re finding open guys and making shots.”

Much of the credit will go to sophomore point guard Greivis Vasquez, who tied a school record with 15 assists in Saturday’s victory over N.C. State. It’s certainly fair; after all, Vasquez shouldered the blame for much of Maryland’s struggles early in the season.

Yet there are other factors at work. Hayes has produced some of his crispest games since returning from a sprained left ankle. Milbourne is less reticent with open perimeter looks and is shooting 11-for-18 (61.1 percent) from the 3-point line since league play resumed.

Meanwhile, big men James Gist and Bambale Osby are more consistently catching and finishing passes into post.

“I think they put a lot of pressure on Greivis to make it seem like it was just him, but it was everybody,” Tucker said. “Everybody is seeing the floor. Coach [Gary Williams] talks all the time about making the extra pass, and we’re trying to do it every time.”

The Terps nearly did in the definitive stretch against N.C. State. Maryland scored on 18 of 21 possessions in the first 13 minutes of the second half on its way to a win that further solidified its postseason position.

Not to mention in a selfless style unseen in the earlier portion of the season.

“You stress certain things, and we weren’t very good at it,” Williams said. “You just keep harping on it and hope it sinks in. It always comes back to the players. Do they want to do it? Do they want to get better? I think you have to have the right attitude to make that happen.”

Today’s game

MARYLAND (16-8, 6-3 ACC) AT NO. 2 DUKE (21-1, 9-0)

When: 7 p.m.

Where: Cameron Indoor Stadium, Durham, N.C.

TV/radio: ESPN, FM-106.7, AM-1300, FM-105.7

Outlook: Duke leads series 102-60, including a 93-84 victory at Comcast Center on Jan. 27. The Terrapins have won three straight road games and hope to become only the fourth team in the last quarter-century to win at Duke and North Carolina in the same season. Senior guard DeMarcus Nelson scored 27 points in the teams’ first meeting and is averaging a team-high 15.5 points for the Blue Devils, who are one of six teams in the nation unbeaten in conference play.

Patrick Stevens

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