It’s been a whirlwind of activity in 2013 for college hoops fans, and parity has certainly shown itself to be the defining characteristic of the season. No longer is there an undefeated team in Division 1 basketball, and countless “Top 25” teams have fallen to the unranked/hardly ranked. It certainly looks like another year where a double digit seed can make a deep NCAA tournament run, which is extremely exciting for the casual fan.
Our beloved Terps saw some early season success, but much of this was due to the soft non-conference schedule and the fact they were allergic from playing away from Comcast (logging 1 true road game and 2 games on neutral floors before ACC play). Since conference play started, Maryland has struggled to score at the impressive rate of the pre-season and have fallen in some close games that they probably wish they had back. Maryland is currently a true “bubble” team for the NCAA tournament, but lack a marquee win that will jump of the resume come March. In a year that it looks like a talented team that sneaks into the tournament as a 9-12 seed has a shot to really make some noise, its vital the Terps start picking up some resume builders to ensure they are dancing in March. Enter the N.C. State Wolfpack.
The Wolfpack are coming off their best performance of the year, as they bested the top-ranked Duke Blue Devils over the weekend in a thrilling contest. With a ton of pre-season hype describing N.C. State as the team-to-beat in the ACC this year, the Wolfpack have had a slightly disappointing start but are beginning to turn things around. Led by the explosive forward C.J. Leslie, and the ACC’s leading assist man, Lorenzo Brown, N.C. State plays an up-tempo style but love to get Leslie involved in the game plan in the half-court in the post, short corner and elbow areas.
Toppling a team as talented as N.C. State would be a huge win for the Terps as they look to build momentum coming off a few disappointing loses, and the victory over a hot Top 25 team is exactly what the resume needs come March. However, many have labeled tonight’s game as a must-win for the Terps, and I think this is slightly over-stretching the importance of the game; there are still 15 games on the regular season schedule to be played, folks! Remaining are two games against Duke, UNC and UVA, @Georgia Tech and @FSU to avenge the heart breaker of this past week, and multiple other ACC tilts. In my opinion, if the Terps are able to go better than .500 in those matchups (say splitting with Duke and UNC and topping FSU and Georgia Tech), take care of business against some of the lesser teams in the conference, and win a conference tournament game (make the semi-finals) they should land on the happy side of things come selection Sunday. Nonetheless, a win tonight would provide a huge confidence boost, right the ship after a few tough losses, and show the nation that Maryland is capable of competing with the country’s best.
For the Terps to pull off the upset, they will need to ensure they execute in a few key areas. Here are the keys to tonight’s big game (even if it’s not quite a “must-win”):
1) Slow down the Wolfpack’s transition opportunities: if Maryland is going to win the game, they need to limit the opportunities N.C. State has in transition where they excel. Limiting transition opportunities is a lot more than just hustling back on the defensive end and it is in some of these other areas Maryland struggles. One key focus needs to be protecting the basketball, as Lorenzo Brown forced Quinn Cook into an unusually sloppy performance in their weekend upset over the Blue Devels. PeShon and the rest of the young Terp guards need to embrace the inevitable pressure from the Wolfpack and take good care of the basketball to prevent run-out opportunities. Additionally, the Terrapin shot selection will play a huge role in limiting potential transition opportunities. The more long shots that go up, the more long rebounds result, leading to quicker and easier fast break opportunities. Maryland has shot at a dismal clip in ACC play, so improving their shot selection, and forcing fewer long jump shots will be a big key to limiting NC State’s offense.
2) Make someone other than Leslie beat you: C.J. Leslie will be the most talented player on the floor tonight. He is certainly going to get his numbers, but it’s when he has explosive offensive performances is when State is deadliest. There are several other talented players for the Wolfpack, but Leslie is the motor that keeps the car running. Maryland needs to concentrate their defensive attention to Leslie, throwing as many different looks at him as possible. Maryland should match up with him with bigger/bulkier players (Len, Cleare, Mitchell), smaller, quicker players (Wells, Padgett), as well as a variety of double teams. Forcing Leslie to be a play maker, and not a finisher, will take him out of his element, and make N.C. State less prolific offensively. It’s important that Maryland makes someone other than N.C. State beat them tonight, and if that happens, they can live with the result.
3) Embrace the Comcast Center rims: As I’ve noted on several occasions this year, Maryland is a pretty poor outside shooting team as a whole, but love to take long jumpers. As soon as ACC play hit their shooting percentage has plummeted to woeful levels over the last two losses (31.6% from floor 20% from 3 at Miami, 36.7% from floor and 36.4% from 3 against FSU). Coming into ACC play, Maryland had shot over 50% from the field and ranked in the top 10 in the country, but most of those victories were coming against inferior teams at Comcast. With a big-game being played on campus, it’s time to give those Comcast rims a hug and ask for some good bounces in tonight’s game. In multiple games this year at home, the Terps have had a breakout offensive performance from an unlikely source, including some hot outside shooting. If they are going to knock the Wolfpack off tonight, they will need this type of hot shooting from one of their guards to help ease the offensive burden tossed on Alex Len and Dez Wells’ shoulders.