What is Dispatches from Blogfrica? Pretty simple: I ask questions of an blogger for an opposing team; he answers. A truly revolutionary idea, no? This week: Ben at Testudo Times, SB Nation's excellent blog for all things Maryland.
1) Maryland had a pretty rocky season, but things are obviously clicking at the moment with three straight wins to make the NIT semifinals. Is this the sort of play you expected from Maryland all season? What's working now that wasn't working earlier in the season?
Yes, I think it's fair to say that this is exactly what fans expected all year. As soon as Dez Wells became eligible, Maryland was transformed from what most considered a bubble team to a supposed tournament lock, and they're finally starting to play like it. Unfortunately, I think most fans (me included) glossed over how young this team would be, and it's that inexperience that really killed the season. There are three upperclassmen on the roster, but all three either fill very narrow roles or were downright liabilities for most of the year; there was a spell midway through the year where Maryland started three sophomores and two freshmen. You can get away with that if you're Kentucky and have talent like Kentucky has, but Maryland doesn't, and the growing pains were evident all year: guys would lose focus and dribble the ball off their foot, rush poor shots, take possessions off on defense, lack composure and lose leads.
Then they lost to Georgia Tech on the road by 10 and, to hear Mark Turgeon tell it, things just clicked. I'm not sure particularlywhy it happened after that game in particular, but you could see Maryland grow up after that loss. There was never a problem with their skill level; they always had elite ability, and they showed as much when they beat N.C. State and Duke early in the year. But what's changed is that they're starting to show up every game, cutting out the youthful errors: fewer silly turnovers and mental lapses, with more passion and composure and camaraderie. It's helped that Turgeon's taken the leash off and let them run: this was a grind-it-out team early in the year, but they look much more at home when allowed to press and push the tempo. There are still holes in roster, but the guys that are here are, through greater experience and a better system, finally playing to their potential with consistency.
2) Maryland beat Duke not once, but twice this year -- that's good! But Maryland also lost ten ACC games in the regular season -- that's bad! So what gives? Why was Maryland such a Jekyll and Hyde team in the ACC this year?
Two reasons. The first is what I mentioned above - Maryland's just young, and there's a volatility inherent in that. They had Miami beat but buckled and lost; they had Florida State beat (twice) and didn't know how to close them out; they didn't show up on the road against Georgia Tech and BC. But there's also one really big roster hole, and it was probably every bit as harmful to their consistency: they pretty much had no point guard. Pe`Shon Howard is the only true point on the roster, and he was coming off two serious leg injuries that kept him out for almost all of last season. The hope was that he'd get back up to speed immediately, but that didn't happen: he was a step slow, his confidence seemed shot, and he eventually lost his starting spot to Seth Allen and Nick Faust, neither of whom are really point guards. Turgeon's system places a great burden on the point, and Maryland's lack of a palatable option there really kneecapped their offense.
Every once in awhile, one of the three would have a good game and you could see how good Maryland, young and inconsistent though they were, could be. But those were few and far between. The good news is that Howard is finally starting to hit his form, not really dictating games but playing good defense and not hurting them offensively (only six turnovers in the last six games). If he's turned a corner, I'd expect Maryland's inconsistency to be a thing of the past; if he regresses, though, well, anything can happen.
3) How has this season matched your expectations before the season began? Did you think Maryland would be an NCAA Tournament team? I notice that, like Iowa, Maryland played a non-conference schedule very heavy on cupcakes (we even played a few of the same ones -- hi there, South Carolina State!), which had a crushing effect on their RPI. Did you see that coming? Did the coaches schedule such a soft non-league schedule to allow the Terps to gain confidence by feasting on patsies? (No judgment here -- that's exactly what Iowa did.)
Almost every fan would tell you they're a bit disappointed by where this season's gone, at least relative to expectations. Virtually everyone thought Maryland would be an NCAA Tournament team, and a few analysts even tipped them as top 25 darkhorses. I don't know if anyone's necessarily upset, per se, that they did miss the tourney in the end, as it became clear that there were some deep flaws that got ignored before the year, but no one really saw the NIT coming. The schedule, as you mention, didn't help, but that was a bit of bad luck: Dez Wells, who transferred from Xavier and has probably become the most important player on the team, only became eligible in November. Before that point, this was expected to be a very young fringe bubble team that would need time and wins to gel and, yes, gain confidence, and that's exactly what Turgeon scheduled for. Had Maryland faced even a marginally tougher schedule, they'd have had a much better shot at a tourney bid, but they didn't really know how good they were going to be.
4) Alex Len looks like Maryland's best player and a very big challenge for Iowa to try and corral on Tuesday. What makes him so good? And who are a few other Terps that Iowa fans should be wary of?
Interestingly, while Len is almost certainly Maryland's best player, he's far from their most productive player. In fact, he really personified their inconsistency: he'd have dominant games against Mason Plumlee and Nerlens Noel, and then completely disappear when he was guarded by nobodies or 6-6 power forwards. Even as Maryland's finally had the light come on, Len hasn't been a big reason why: Alabama game aside, he was largely invisible against Niagara and Denver. But when he's on, he's monstrous: he's a legit 7-1, athletic, with a soft touch and ever-improving strength. He can be dominant defending the rim, and if a team doesn't double him on the other end he'll win the vast majority of one-on-one battles. The issue is getting (and keeping) him mentally involved.
The truly most important player on the team is Dez Wells, who's been the real catalyst for Maryland turning the corner. He's put up 18 a game over the last six, including 30 in the win over Duke, and it's his emergence as a go-to perimeter scorer that has really transformed the team. He's a terror in the open floor, a 6-5 tank with extraordinary athleticism. As Maryland's run more, that's opened up his game and his confidence, making him a greater threat in the halfcourt as well; he's a 34% three-point shooter on the year, but is 8-11 in his last six. I don't know if anyone on Maryland is a genuine primary threat - they can beat a team in a variety of ways - but Wells certainly comes closest.
5) Are you excited about joining the Big Ten in 2014? How well do you think Maryland will fit in, both from a cultural standpoint and a competitive standpoint? Is there anything you'll miss about the ACC?
I was driving the Big Ten bandwagon back in 2010, so I'm downright giddy. And while the fanbase was initially skeptical, after a bit of persuasion the vast majority has come around and come to be excited about the benefits the conference provides. There will certainly be a bittersweet aspect to leaving the ACC, but aside from playing Duke once a year, most of what's bittersweet about the ACC is just a memory of what the ACC used to be in it's 9-team round-robin days. Those days are dead, and in every non-sentimental aspect the Big Ten blows it out of the water.
The competitive fit is solid enough; Maryland will be in over their heads in football to begin with, but they'll also have the richest talent base in the conference for recruiting and they're starting to defend it very vigorously, as their last two classes indicate. In basketball, it's perfect: this is a program back on the way up, and they'll add to the Big Ten's current status as the best conference in the country. Culturally, I think the fit is better than most Marylanders expect, especially with the other Eastern schools; the ACC is largely a Southern conference built around small, pompous schools in North Carolina; Maryland, a large, urban land-grant with an increasingly northern identity, fits very well in the Big Ten.
6) OK, prediction time -- who ya got?
It's tough to pick here, and I wouldn't be surprised if either team won. I'm leaning ever-so-slightly toward Maryland, because between their depth and athleticism they're built for single-elimination tournaments like this, and it's clearly where they've been at their best. But after seeing Iowa dismantle Virginia on the road, they're certainly the favorite if they can shoot anywhere near what they did on Wednesday. My guess is that, while Iowa's shooting improvement is certainly real, they won't be that efficient again and Maryland will sneak it by a possession or two, but no result would surprise me.
Thanks for being a good sport, Ben. You can check out Ben and the rest of the TT crew at Testudo Times. You can also follow TT on Twitter at @testudotimes. The Iowa-Maryland game is the second NIT semifinal game in New York City on Tuesday, April 2, and is scheduled to start at approximately 8:30pm CT, with television coverage from ESPN2.