The Teams: Maryland Terrapins (22-12) vs Niagara Purple Eagles (19-13)
The Time: 7:00 PM EST
The Location: Comcast Center
TV/Radio: ESPN2, 105.7 FM/980 AM
The Backstory: Welp, so much for that NCAA Tournament bid. After Selection Sunday put the Maryland Terrapins on the outside looking in at the Big Dance, the team now has to set aside their disappointment and compete for a slightly smaller prize: the NIT Championship game. The Terrapins narrowly missed the cut after losing a tough one to North Carolina, 79-76, in the ACC Tournament semi-final game. Winning against UNC would have likely placed them in the tournament, but falling short of 23 wins kept them out.
The good news is that the Terrapins are playing some of their best basketball of the season, and look to be strong contenders in the NIT. Alex Len, their mercurial seven foot center, had a strong final outing against North Carolina with 20 points and 7 rebounds, while Dez Wells continued his aggressive play and put up 15 points and 9 rebounds following his 30 point performance against Duke. The momentum the Terrapins carry into their showdown against Niagara is sure to be a help, assuming they can cope with not making the tournament.
Meanwhile, Niagara is facing similar troubles. The Purple Eagles also found themselves on the bad end of the bubble after losing in the MAAC tournament to Iona, despite winning the conference in the regular season. Niagara comes into the NIT as the seventh seed, and look to be a pretty tough out. They play at a breakneck pace (40th in the nation in possessions per game), and jack up triples like it’s nobody’s business. Their team is also full of people who are likely familiar with the Terrapins.
Their head coach, Joe Mihalich, formerly coached DeMatha Catholic High School just minutes away from Maryland, and one of their players is a Gonzaga boy (a few more minutes from Maryland). Will that familiarity play a factor for the Terrapins? Who knows.
Keys to the Game:
1.) Box out on the boards, score in the post
The Terrapins are have a nice size advantage heading into this game, with no one on Niagara over 6’8, and exploiting that would do a lot of good. No one one the Purple Eagles also averages over 6 rebounds a contest, and as a team they are 130th nationally in rebounds per game. Considering they don’t shoot over 34% from three point range and take a whole lot of them, there is a good chance that rebounds will be aplenty tonight.
If Alex Len, Shaquille Cleare, and Charles Mitchell can do some damage in the paint and get one or two of their big men into foul trouble, this game could get ugly. Niagara is good, but without size they will be severely marginalized. The Terrapins can exploit all of this, and send them home packing early with a strong inside-out game.
2.) Press the perimeter
One of Maryland’s biggest issues all year long (save for more recent games) has been their perimeter defense. If a team has a sharpshooter from three point range, the Terps usually give up more than a few treys to him. It’s up to Pe’Shon Howard, Dez Wells, and Nick Faust to really get into their shooters and contest every shot. Len will pick up a lot of rebounds, but he has to get the opportunity to do so in the first place, and that requires stingy perimeter defense. Given how fast these guys play, their possessions will be very high, and if Maryland can follow shooters in transition, they should be good to go against Niagara.
Prediction: Terps win by double digits and await the second round.