Maryland may be on the verge of completing a successful yet slightly unimpressive 12-1 conclusion to their pre-ACC season, but in the end, that won't mean much.
Season goals will begin to shift towards achieving a high seed in the NCAA Tournament, and competing for the ACC conference tournament crown.
It's no secret that the ACC is down this year—excluding Duke.
The Blue Devils sit perched atop the national rankings, undefeated with victories in the Bahamas over VCU, Minnesota and Louisville and additional wins over Ohio State, Kentucky and Temple.
Next in line would be Mark Gottfried's resurgent North Carolina State Wolf Pack. C.J. Leslie and Lorenzo Brown headline a talent-laden roster that is comfortably inside the Top 25.
After that, a compelling argument can be made about who the third-best team in the league is—Maryland, Miami or North Carolina.
Maryland hasn't beaten anyone flashy, but double-digit wins at Northwestern and on a neutral court against George Mason are not too shabby. Its lone loss came against Kentucky.
Miami was speeding its way into the rankings, cushioned by a signature win against Michigan State in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. Still, losses to Florida Gulf Coast (granted, without Durand Scott) and Indiana State (granted, without Reggie Johnson) hurt their resume.
North Carolina probably carries the most talent on paper amongst the three schools, but their three losses (most of the three teams at hand) have been suffered by over 17 points per game, including a blowout defeat by a struggling Texas squad without Myck Kabongo.
At this point, Maryland is a safe No. 3 in the conference. Resume-wise, nothing glares as a devastating blemish. Talent-wise, Alex Len has come on strong, and Dez Wells as emerged as a primary scoring threat.
The question still looms—can Maryland jump ahead of Duke and NC State, and cement itself as an ACC title threat?
Throughout the painstakingly prolonged two-month period that is ACC conference play, players get tired. No matter how physically prepared a player is, the human body wears down.
Duke lacks frontcourt depth. Mason Plumlee is terrific, and Ryan Kelly has enhanced his low-post game. I don't see Marshall Plumlee evolving into a legitimate threat this season, and Alex Murphy and Amile Jefferson aren't necessarily bangers by the basket.
North Carolina State is very top-heavy on its depth chart. C.J. Leslie, T.J. Warren, Lorenzo Brown, Scott Wood, Tyler Lewis, Rodney Purvis and Richard Howell will all contribute substantial minutes, but a seven man rotation will only take you so far.
Maryland goes 10 deep, including four true low-post players in Alex Len, Shaquille Cleare, James Padgett and Charles Mitchell. I won't try and make the argument that 6'10'' Jake Layman is a post player, but four is sufficient.
Maryland has the ability to outlast NC State and Duke because of its depth.
Next, Maryland has two individual players that no team in the ACC can match up with man-to-man in Alex Len and Dez Wells.
Is Maryland a legit ACC title threat?
Off the top of my head, the only two players in the country who have the ability to run the floor well enough, and have enough length and strength to successfully contain Len, are Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk and Louisville's Gorgui Dieng.
Neither play in the ACC.
Mason Plumlee hasn't shown he can guard anyone as versatile as Len who can face up from the elbow-extended, nor has he shown he can deal with the length of a 7'1'' opponent.
When Duke played Louisville, Dieng didn't play. Len outplayed Kentucky's Nerlens Noel massively, so the fact that Plumlee did as well doesn't give Plumlee an edge.
Plumlee didn't guard Deshaun Thomas against Ohio State, and Amir Williams doesn't have that versatility.
Minnesota's Trevor Mbakwe wasn't at full strength yet against Duke, while Temple and VCU don't have players similar to Len.
For all of Plumlee's accomplishments this season, showing he can handle a 7'1'' center who plays like a combo forward isn't one.
NC State's tallest rotation player is 6'9''. An explanation isn't really needed for why the Wolf Pack don't have the personnel to matchup with a player over seven feet tall.
Switching over to Dez Wells, on paper, Duke's best bet to guard Wells is Rasheed Sulaimon, who has been a bit of a defensive liability so far. Sulaimon isn't as strong as Wells, which will allow Wells to muscle his way around Sulaimon's pressure.
I just don't see Seth Curry, who isn't that quick, being able to stick with Wells.
NC State's small forward is Scott Wood. With all due respect given to Wood, it's pretty clear that Wood is at NC State for his outside shooting and not his defense.
Lorenzo Brown has the physical tools to stay with Wells, but typically Brown guards the point guard bringing the ball down the floor. We haven't seen Brown play on a small forward just yet.
C.J. Leslie and T.J. Warren are athletic, but NC State can't afford to use their limited big-bodies on 6'5'' opponents.
Maryland's two studs are going to pose matchup nightmares for its two biggest contenders for the ACC crown, and neither will be able to deal with Maryland's depth.
The answer to the aforementioned question is yes—the Terps have to be considered a legit ACC title threat, regardless of what their weak non-conference schedule suggests.