COLLEGE PARK, Md.—College basketball success is fragile. Ask Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon.
Last weekend, his team dropped its sixth game out of 10, an 80-69 decision at home to Virginia. Just two weeks after a group of Maryland students began affectionately dressing like Turgeon—right down to the gray patch in his hair—for every game, Terrapin fans heckled Turgeon so badly that his 13-year-old son Will was forced to leave the Comcast Center.
“It’s been a hard week on my family,” said Turgeon Saturday, fighting back tears after his Terrapins upset No. 2 Duke 83-81. “It was hard on my son. Last week he had to leave the gym because the fans were so hard on his dad.”
Following the Virginia loss, he stripped his captains of their titles and suspended point guard Pe’Shon Howard—who outranks even prolific distributor Quinn Cook in assists per 40 minutes—for an undisclosed violation of team rules.
None of this sounds like the sort of week a Terrapin coach would want to have in advance of a game against Duke, which had long since tipped the balance of power between the two schools back toward Durham by winning 13 of the last 14 matchups dating back to 2008.
But success in college basketball is fragile. Ask Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who gave Turgeon’s squad the praise it deserved after Saturday’s game at the Comcast Center in College Park.
“We’re not this great basketball team,” Kryzyzewski said. “Our team has found a way to win with Ryan being out. And we have to continue to find that. It’s very fragile—you can see that tonight.”
Perhaps the best definition of elite status in college basketball today is the ability to win even when a team fails to find that delicate balance in any given game. Duke looked like that sort of squad early in the season when Kelly was on the floor to lend a hand in many different facets of the game, but Saturday’s loss showcased the challenge that the Blue Devils face in getting all cylinders firing at once.
Defensively, the Blue Devils did a fantastic job forcing turnovers against Maryland, racking up 12 steals—including four apiece by point guards Quinn Cook and Tyler Thornton—and converting the Terrapins’ 26 giveaways into 27 points.
But their efforts wreaking havoc with Maryland ball-handlers were counteracted by subpar efforts protecting the rim.
Turgeon used nine players against the Blue Devils. All nine took at least three shots, and only one—guard Logan Aronhalt, whose three shots were all 3-pointers—made less than half of his attempts. When point guard Seth Allen was able to avoid turning the ball over, he penetrated with ease, shooting 4-for-7 from the floor and earning eight trips to the free throw line, including the game-winning pair with 2.8 seconds to play after blowing by Quinn Cook close to midcourt.
Allen’s critical free throws were two of 34 that Maryland earned in the game, a consequence of personnel mismatches—which Maryland exploited to greater effect than Duke—as well as whistle-happy officials who called 49 fouls in the game, including one on each of the last four possessions.
“You just want to play,” senior guard Seth Curry said. “It seemed like both teams were playing well the whole game, but the game changed when they were stopping play every possession, so it’s frustrating. It’s not fun.”
On offense, Curry brought his top shooting form, especially in the first half, when he swished numerous off-balance jumpshots en route to a 7-for-9 showing before halftime.
But as unstoppable as he was at several key moments, Duke’s interior game weighed down Curry’s winning effort. A visibly exhausted Mason Plumlee managed just four points and three rebounds—season lows in both categories—against a smorgasbord of big Terrapin defenders. Plumlee struggled to establish consistent position in the post, and came up short on several hook shots when he did get the ball down low.
Josh Hairston gave perhaps his best effort of the season, scoring 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting and drawing three offensive fouls, but Plumlee emphasized that the team cannot rely on others to keep its balance intact.
“I’ve just got to show up,” Plumlee said. “I didn’t think I showed up to play today, and I let my teammates down.”
With a winning balance so difficult to come by, there comes a point in the season—especially in the ACC—where strategy and talent more readily take a backseat to emotion and fatigue. Challenges arise for every team, but the champions will be the teams that can keep the low points each game from getting too low, that can prove flexible and versatile and that can recover quickly from setbacks.
Saturday, the Terrapins were better in those areas than Duke was, but for his part, Krzyzewski thinks he has the necessary ingredients in his own locker room as well.
“I’ve got a bunch of winners in there. They don’t have positions,” Krzyzewski said. “There’s no strategy really in this. You’re trying to survive. You’re trying to get five guys out there to fight. There’s a lot of improvisation done in this game.”
updated 12:15 a.m. Feb. 17