No Matter What, Maryland Wins Against Virginia


When the Maryland Terrapins play host to the Virginia Cavaliers tonight, regardless of the outcome, there’s a good chance they come out on top.

I’m not one for moral victories, and I have never really been big on the notion that a good loss can sometimes be as good as a close win. And yet even with that said, there’s a good chance Maryland benefits from a game against the Cavs in more ways than one. We’ll start with the experience factor.

Rank ain’t nothin’ but a number

In many respects, this season reminds me quite a bit of the first year Greivis Vasquez arrived in College Park back in 2006. Not necessarily by roster composition (the Terps had a stout front and back court with D.J. Strawberry, Mike Jones, James Gist, and Ekene Ibekwe), but by overall circumstance. The year prior, Maryland had just missed the tournament and finished sixth in the ACC, and actually had a decent amount of roster changing in the offseason with Nik Caner-Medley, Travis Garrison, and Chris McCray all departing.

The expectations going into that season weren’t necessarily the highest, but that all changed when the season began. Maryland went 8-0 to start the year thanks in part to an offense that passed the ball better than most teams in the country. Freshmen Greivis Vasquez and Eric Hayes came in and changed the culture, while heady, team-oriented guys like D.J. Strawberry and James Gist provided experience and balance to the influx of youth.

The Terrapins took down tournament-bound Winthrop and Michigan State during that eight-game winning streak which eventually got them ranked prematurely, and then proceeded to beat Illinois in the Big Ten – ACC  Challenge. That saw them climb as high as No. 19 in the ESPN/USA Today poll, and at the time, it felt right. But of course it wouldn’t last.

The Terrapins hosted Mike Brey and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Verizon Center after that Illinois game and got blasted. Going into the half of that game, Maryland had a three-point lead. Then, 52 points surrendered in the second half and a 25-7 Irish run later, Maryland lost 81-74. The game was winnable, but the team just wasn’t ready. Greivis Vasquez took some crazy shots, Mike Jones did next to nothing, and Maryland didn’t move the ball. They came out completely flat.

It was a learning experience, and one that cost Maryland dearly in the polls. They wouldn’t be ranked again until the February 27 of 2007, the penultimate week of the season. But the pitfalls of hubris were learned that day. They were ranked too soon and got cocky; rankings mean nothing until you’ve made the tournament.

That’s why this season feels like 2006 all over again. This Maryland team has absolutely looked like a tournament team, don’t get me wrong. But the early ranking, earned or not, feels premature. A win over Iowa State in a neutral venue while still missing an important piece is a great win, and it’s why they are ranked. But who knows if that same Iowa State team is even a tournament team? They may not even make it considering the pieces they lost over the offseason.

The bottom half of the top 25 is around to fill teams with false hope. It’s constantly in flux, with teams moving in and out of the top 25 on a week-to-week basis. They think a ranking means they’ve made it, when in reality it is only the beginning. Plenty of teams have gotten ranked early on and failed to make the tournament altogether, and I’d wager that most of them fall in that 18-25 rank.

Going up against a team like Virginia, a team that’s earned their ranking by continuing the exact same level of success that they sustained all of last season, might be a wake up call. They will be able to see exactly what is required to be considered in that elite group of teams that will likely be ranked highly all season, and they’ll get to see it early. Teams like this Virginia one simply humble and put away teams that show up even remotely cocky through hard work.

That 2006 Maryland team lost to that eventually tournament bound Notre Dame team, and lost their ranking for almost the entire season (they got it back February 27, 2007). What they did gain, however, was a realization that the work was not over, and that they still hadn’t earned anything. This year’s team probably is a top 25 team, but their early ranking is not indicative of that fact.

Building a resume

Emotions aside, win or lose, this game does wonders for the Terrapins resume. Part of becoming a tournament team is playing tough opponents, and right now Maryland has seven left on the schedule. Taking down Iowa State was huge, but playing them at all was just as important.

The RPI is antiquated in its approach, and does not really weigh losses as heavily as they ought to. For example, Maryland could play Virginia and win by 20, but it would still count as simply a win and that Maryland had in fact played a highly rated opponent with a great SOS and a good win percentage. Conversely, they could lose by 60 and it would just count as a loss against a highly ranked opponent and that they had played a team with a strong SOS and a good winning percentage. Margin of victory is irrelevant, just the fact that you did it. It’s like checking off “here” on an attendance sheet at work then playing Mahjong the remainder of the day; you get credit for having been there, regardless of if you did any work.

Maryland needs a game like Virginia to boost their out-of-conference resume for the RPI, and playing two ranked teams helps. Consider that Oklahoma State has a chance at being ranked by the time they play them, and the Terrapins are looking at playing three ranked opponents before conference play even begins. That’s huge for a team like Maryland, who has at times been lambasted by the selection committee for that same reason.

Michigan State has only two ranked opponents on their out of conference, but ten overall. Illinois has nine overall. Indiana has twelve. You get the picture. Maryland needs all the ranked opponents they can get on their schedule, and Virginia helps that out a bunch in giving them a coveted early-season match against a very good team.

Playing your best without your best

Say whatever you want about Dez Wells, he’s gotten better every year that he’s been playing. His PER is up this year, his turnovers are down, and his stealing and rebounding rates are all up. He’s also playing some of the most inspired defense of his career (thanks in large part to less of a need to exert himself in the offensive game), which makes him an entirely different animal.

Playing with Wells on the court makes things easier on everyone, but especially for the freshmen. When the team struggles, Wells will shoulder both the load and the responsibility because he can handle it. It’s the senior’s job to get the team ready and set the tone for the rest of the players, not the young guys. If Layman and Wells struggle, they’re the reason the team lost in a fan’s eyes. If the freshmen struggle, it’s just growing pains.

But without Wells and the tremendous impact he has on the floor rises opportunity for the younger guys. Dion Wiley took his spot in the rotation last game and played beyond expectations. His first career start resulted in a huge output offensively. Building up confidence for freshmen early is great, but it’s even better when they have to earn it all the way as a guy like Wells isn’t there to make it easier.

That eventually improves depth, and a winning team has got to have it. No matter how you skin this game, Maryland is probably going to come out on top in this one.