Mar 16, 2013; Greensboro, NC, USA; Maryland Terrapins guard/forward Dez Wells (32) drives to the basket against the North Carolina Tar Heels during the semifinals of the ACC tournament at Greensboro Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
The Teams: Maryland Terrapins (0-0) vs Connecticut Huskies (0-0)
The Time: 6:30 p.m.
The Location: Barclays Center, Brooklyn, NY
TV/Radio: ESPN2, 980 AM
The Coaches: Mark Turgeon (42/28, third season at Maryland) and Kevin Ollie (20-10, second season at Connecticut)
Probable Starting Lineups: MD – Shaquille Cleare (3.7 PPG & 2.7 RPG), Evan Smotrycz (7.7 PPG & 4.9 RPG), Jake Layman (5.5 PPG & 3.2 RPG), Nick Faust (9.4 PPG & 3.7 RPG), Dez Wells (13.1 PPG & 4.9 RPG); UConn – Kentan Facey (Freshman), DeAndre Daniels (12.1 PPG & 5.5 RPG), Omar Calhoun (11.1 PPG & 3.9 RPG), Ryan Boatright (15.4 PPG & 4.4 APG), Shabazz Napier (17.1 PPG & 4.6 APG)
The Backstory: Maryland returns to Brooklyn once again and is looking for a better result this time around. In their inaugural trip last season, the Terrapins fell 72-69 to a talented-but-young Kentucky squad that featured center Nerlens Noel and forward Willie Cauley-Stein manning the frontcourt. It also turned out to be the coming out party for Terrapins big man Alex Len, who abused Noel and company.
Fast forward to this Friday’s matchup at the Barclays Center and you have a pair of very evenly-matched teams. It’s a game that will be dominated by two spectacular veteran backcourts. Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright may be small, but they can flat-out score the basketball. Napier has improved during his three years at Connecticut and now knows that it’s his team. After being in the shadow of Jeremy Lamb, Napier had a spectacular sophomore campaign who he led the team in scoring and topped the 20 point mark on eight occasions. Point being, Napier can go off at any moment as can Boatright.
In terms of the bigger picture, this is one of the biggest games on Maryland’s non-conference schedule, in addition to traveling to Ohio State on Dec. 4. We saw last season how much the Terps needed a few signature non-conference wins and they didn’t really have any. The closest thing was wins over Northwestern in the ACC/B1G Challenge and George Mason in the BB&T Classic. This tussle with Connecticut is a chance for a huge marquee win and would also look phenomenal on the national landscape. Obviously, since the glory days of former coach Gary Williams in the early 2000s, Maryland has fell off the radar on a national level. They haven’t sniffed the NCAA tournament since former star Greivis Vasquez’s senior season (thanks for the dagger Korie Lucious). A win like this would also keep coach Mark Turgeon’s recruiting momentum. The Terps have their 2014 class all filled out, but 2015 is wide-open and a good showing could potentially lure another four or five star recruit to College Park. There’s a lot on the line for Maryland when they take the floor at the Barclays Center on Friday evening.
Keys to the game/Storylines:
1.) Battle Of The Backcourts: As was alluded to above, Connecticut has an absolutely lethal backcourt in Napier and Boatright. Both are more than capable of filling the stat sheet and can attack in a number of different ways. They can also get to the rim at ease, but also can hit a deep shot from beyond the arc. While that is extremely impressive, the Huskies don’t possess a true point guard. Obviously, Napier runs the point and did have 4.6 assists-per-game last year. However, he also turned the ball over 2.4 times per game and Boatright coughed it up three times a contest.
The biggest key for Maryland is going to be holding this dynamic duo in check. Guards Dez Wells and Nick Faust will need to play smart and not leave the lane open. If there’s a tiny space of daylight for Napier or Boatright to get to the basket, they will attack it and potentially draw a foul. Perimeter defense will also be huge as it’s perfectly clear how much these two like to shoot. Wells and Faust are going to have to be in their faces, playing pressure defense. This could be a huge stepping stone for Faust as he is attempting to play the role of guarding the opposing team’s best player all season. Simply put, if the Terps can force Napier and Boatright to settle for a bad shot every few possessions, that could go a long way towards coming out of Brooklyn with a victory.
2.) Maryland’s Advantage In The Frontcourt: Foward Tyler Olander is suspended indefinitely and will miss the game, which is a big loss for the Huskies. They don’t have a tremendous frontcourt presence as it is. Maryland will have to try to contain big man DeAndre Daniels, who is definitely capable of scoring inside. Daniels is very tall and lanky, which could give the Terps fits if he’s left open. The Los Angeles native ended last season very strong as he averaged 21.3 points-per-game and nine rebounds-per-game over the final four regular season games.
Aside from Daniels, Maryland clearly has a superior frontcourt. It’s expected that Turgeon will start Shaquille Cleare and Evan Smotrycz down low with Charles Mitchell coming off the bench. Penn State transfer Jon Graham is now eligible and could see some minutes, along with freshman Damonte Dodd. The Terps clearly have the edge in the depth department. They also have the height and strength to make a difference on the glass. If Cleare can have a better showing than he did against Catholic, he can be effective. He should able to outmuscle Daniels for rebounds. On the other hand, Smotrycz is a tough, gritty forward that is not afraid of contact. On the offensive end, his ability to get to the free throw line will be key. Not to mention that Charles Mitchell is one of the best rebounders in the ACC. It just appears that Connecticut’s frontcourt doesn’t have the size to compete with Maryland.
3.) Dez Wells Running The Point: As soon as guard Seth Allen went down, Wells became at the heir apparent at the point. He’s only had about a week at the position, but did run the offense in Sunday’s exhibition game against Catholic. In 24 minutes, Wells scored seven points (three-for-four from the field), grabbed four rebounds, and dished out three assists. He also committed three fouls and had a pair of turnovers.
Wells certainly didn’t light the word on fire by any stretch. However, it was Catholic and Maryland ran three offensive plays, according to Turgeon. He did struggle with turnovers, much like Allen and many others did last season. It’s a work in progress and the first true test will come on Friday. Wells is a decent ball-handler and is a very strong passer. Faust and freshman Roddy Peters should also get looks at point guard.
Prediction: I think Maryland wins this game, plain and simple. They just have too many weapons for Connecticut to keep up with. It will be a close game, but the Terps get their revenge at Barclays with somewhere along the lines of a 74-69 victory.