Thanks to some commitments and a bit of wintry weather, I relinquished my spot in Cameron Indoor Stadium for the Duke’s Men’s Basketball games after the New Year break. Today, I made my return, the environment both before and after today’s 85-44 rout of the Maryland Terrapins felt radically transformed from its pre-ACC complacence: The kids are camping in Krzyzewskiville in droves now,

and they’re playing the parts of Cameron Crazies betterimproved group outfits, sharper taunts, more energy all aroundthan when they overlooked great jokes against Presbyterian’s Blue Hose in November. And after the game, a horde of fans huddled in Cameron’s front lobby, holding basketballs, programs and ticket stubs, all awaiting the Sharpie swipe of the 14 players that might just emerge from this weekend as the top-ranked basketball team in the country.

‘It will be a big deal for our guys, and it will be a big deal for us because it means that we’re playing really well,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski after Saturday’s noon game, noting thatthough the Devils have played nearly 200 games in the No. 1 spot during his tenure theremany of the players on this current squad haven’t played any. ‘It’s an honor and it says that you’re playing really well, but you don’t get anything from it other than a really big headline when you lose. … Don’t take that as a defeatist attitude, but chances are that we’re going to get hit sometime.”

But Saturday, the Devils, who improved to 18-1 on the season and 5-0 in the ACC, looked invincibly strong and as if they indubitably deserve the nation’s top spot. The Devils harassed Maryland with a defensive intensity that, at times, made it feel as if seven Devils had been assigned to cover five Terps. During the first half, Maryland shot a dismal 28% from the field to Duke’s 40%, a problem compounded by many turnovers, few rebounds and play that seemed generally frustrated. Maryland scoring leader Greivis Vasquez sank only two of his 10 shots on the day and never made it to the free-throw line, a problem considering he leads the ACC in free-throw percentage.

‘I’ve come in here before with teams that were underdogs, and they played pretty well. We didn’t do that today, and they made us pay for it,” Maryland coach Gary Williams said. ‘It’s one game. If it happens again next week, I’d say, ‘Sure, there will be a lot of concern [about the team].’ This can happen here probably quicker than any other place in the country.”

Despite increasing concerns about depth, Duke looked strong down the bench Saturday: With only 17 points, Gerald Henderson was the team’s top scorer, an indication that the Devils’ high totals were spread thin across much of the squad. Elliot Williams scored a quiet nine off of the bench, and Kyle Singer and Jon Scheyer dropped 11 and 12, respectively. A surprising stimulus came from Brian Zoubek, whose court presence and awareness have grown considerably over the last two months. He still seems somewhat skittish and, as Krzyzewski noted, unable to use his ball fake, but he’s moving better, putting his hands and feet in the right places, and tipping and chasing his own rebounds. In the first half, he went three for four from the field with only one foul in 13 minutes and a perfect backdoor bounce pass to Lance Thomas for one of his three first-half assists. Out of the locker room for the second half, Zoubek proved essential for a five-minute, 20-4 spree that was, in Krzyzewski’s words, ‘lights-out basketball.” Scheyer, Smith and Henderson all scored from beyond the arch during that brilliant burst, while Zoubek grabbed four boards and sent one Terp shot flying in reverse. Shortly thereafter, with Duke up 66-23 and 12:54 remaining, the substitutions began to flow freely, avoiding what could have been a Scorched Terp afternoon.

‘I hope the rest of your day is better than my last two hours,” Williams said at the start of his press conference. The fact that it could have been much worse was likely a very cold comfort.