No team is better prepared to win this weekend's Final Four than the Maryland Terrapins.
They've been preparing for this since last year's Final Four. They are the only team returning. And, of course, they have the memories of Duke to drive them.
Yes, the hated Blue Devils, who overcame a 22-point first-half deficit to Maryland last year, won't be around to spoil this national semifinal against No. 1-seeded Kansas on Saturday in Atlanta's Georgia Dome.
"Everything is always Duke, Duke, Duke," Maryland center Lonny Baxter said during a week in which the No. 1-seeded Terps ousted formidable opponents Kentucky and UConn while the Blue Devils were ousted by unranked Indiana. "We're always second behind Duke. This year they're out of the tournament and we're still advancing."
"HEY DUKE: ENJOY THE VIEW ON T.V." read a sign at the Carrier Dome, where Maryland beat UConn.
Said guard Juan Dixon, like Baxter a senior: "I don't mind being compared to Duke. But this is about Maryland now."
True, Juan, it is about Maryland now. And since your Atlantic Coast Conference rival and the defending national champion is out, there are no excuses.
This is the first time the Terps have advanced further than a Mike Krzyzewski-coached Duke team since 1985 when Adrian Branch was their best player.
"I think we have a very good chance to win the national championship," guard Drew Nicholas said.
Maryland has felt that way since Midnight Madness last fall when coach Gary Williams stood at center court of Cole Field HouseÂa relic built in 1955 yet still without the decor of a national-championship bannerÂand uncharacteristically fired up the crowd of 14,000 with words of bravado.
"Last year our goal was the go to the Final Four," Williams said. "Our next goal is to win the national championship."
For the irritable Williams, that was a melodic soliloquy. To his teammates, who would soon receive T-shirts reading "Final Four: Atlanta" as well as Final Four posters they would place inside their lockers, they were words of encouragement.
"Everybody's talked about the 22-point lead we lost to Duke," senior forward Byron Mouton said. "That was very, very disappointing. But coming into this season, coach told us he has never had as deep and as talented a team. That meant a lot."
Maryland, which captured the ACC regular-season title outright for the first time since 1980, can win in so many ways.
It can beat you with a beefy center in Baxter.
Conversely, it can beat you with a splendid shooter in Dixon.
Maryland can score quickly with the athleticism of a wing forward such as Chris Wilcox. And at the same time it can prevail with the smothering defense of Mouton or the steady hand of guard Steve Blake.
"Maryland is very capable of winning the national championship," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. "They have all the answers."
What the Terrapins also have is an immeasurable qualityÂsenior leaders. Dixon is an uncommon star, an under-recruited scorer who red-shirted a season and hung around for four more.
"College is all about having fun," said Dixon, the school's all-time leading scorer with more than 2,000 points. "I've grown up a lot. It's been a great experience."
Williams said this senior classÂDixon, Baxter and MoutonÂhas accomplished more than any class in school history, and it's hard to argue because it has taken the school to its first two Final Fours.
But by painful comparison, Duke has been there 13 times.
While the Terps won the last meeting with Duke by 14 points on Feb. 17, what fans seem to remember most is losing three of four games to Duke last season, including one in which they blew a 10-point lead at home with 54 seconds left.
Dixon wanted another crack at Duke but will have to settle for Kansas and a potential national title meeting with Oklahoma or Indiana. The ring's the thing.
"We came so close to winning the national title last year," Dixon said. "We are focused and we are hungry. If we can focus for two more games, then we've made our season."