With the one-game vacay that was Longwood behind us, Maryland's moving back to ACC play for a home game against North Carolina State, perhaps the most puzzling team in the ACC.
Had I written this preview two weeks ago, the entire tone would be completely different. That Wolfpack would've had losses to UVA and Northwestern at home, and a loss to a below-average Arizona team on the road. I would've called them a traditional Sid Lowe team: lots of talent, but still underachieving.
But things were recently starting to look up for the Wuffies. Remember, they only lost to a decent Florida team by one on a miracle shot. The Virginia loss looks better by the day. And they've performed extremely admirably the past two ACC games, beating Florida State in Tallahassee and only losing to a good Clemson team by 3.
And then, of course, they played Duke last night. Perhaps you heard of it? They completely outplayed the Dookies in every aspect of the game and walked away with a 14 point win.
And suddenly, this game becomes all the more scarier.
If the Duke game were a one-game fluke, I would feel better. But this team has seen marked improvement and solid play the last few games - this will be a real test for Maryland. I'm not saying they're normally that good - NCSt was hot and Duke was cold, that's for sure - but you have to take them seriously.
The good news is that they're probably emotionally drained. Big wins against really good teams that are also rivals? That causes an emotional letdown all while overestimating their own abilities, and I wouldn't expect Sid Lowe to be able to coach 'em out of it. As strange as it sounds, Maryland is a trap game of sorts.
That said, it'll still be tight, because NCSt has shown that they can play. Everyone knows about the awesomely-bearded, outspoken Tracy Smith (16 points, 8 rebounds), one of the ACC's best players. He'll be a tough matchup for anyone that Maryland wants to put on him, a job that will probably be shared by Jordan Williams, Dino Gregory, and Landon Milbourne. His low post moves are easily the best in the conference, but he still has the athleticism to step out and face the basket. The lack of a legitimate defensive option is really scary. They won't be able to defend him once he gets it unless they double, and maybe even then, so perhaps Gary should instead focus on keeping him from receiving the ball in the first place.
Javier Gonzalez runs the point for N.C. State, and in many ways he reminds of Greivis Vasquez (and no, it's not based on race - both are outspoken, vivacious, and flashy as hell). Unfortunately, he also happens to be Vasquez' arch-nemesis, stemming from the incident last year when Vasquez hit a shot at the buzzer when it was completely unnecessary. He's the type of guy that can give Vasquez trouble: he's small and quick, an expert penetrator with solid handles and a keen court awareness. He's not going to light up the scoreboard, but he'll dish out plenty of assists, some of which will drop your jaw. I wouldn't mind seeing Vasquez try to cover Scott Wood instead of Javy if only due to the quickness factor. Luckily, like Vasquez in his youth, he turns the ball over quite a bit, so that's one place that Adrian Bowie or Sean Mosley could have success.
N.C. State has some other solid pieces, too: Dennis Horner is an excellent perimeter shooter and their number 2 option offensively, but he doesn't make use of his size (6-9). He's not exclusively a perimeter player, but seeing him with his back to the basket is somewhat rare. For that reason, I'd feel pretty comfortable sticking Landon Milbourne on him defensively, which helps to take away the perimeter advantage he has over a lot of other 4s.
Scott Wood is another sharp shooter and a microwave scorer at the 3 (he dropped 31 on FSU), but he can be anywhere from tentative to unconscious with the ball, so defending him aggressively may help. When he gets a millimeter of space and a millisecond of time, the ball is going out, and probably going in. Stay on him, though, and he has trouble producing his own offense.
The only game I've really watched for N.C. State this year was against Duke, so maybe my sample size was small, but Farnold Degand really impressed me off the bench. He's a 6-4 ballhandler who only averages 6 a game but is unbelievably quick and a solid playmaker; a matchup with Vasquez or Mosley could spell trouble.
Julius Mays is a consistent combo that backs up Gonzalez, but he's not nearly as problematic as Javy with the ball. Richard Howell (averaging 4 and 4) is a talented freshman that comes off the bench and has a skillset very similar to Landon Milbourne's, albeit in a much more powerful body that is more focused to the paint.
The scary thing about NC State is that they're less than the sum of their parts. Horner, Wood, Gonzalez, and especially Smith should add up to a top-tier ACC team. They've started to show that lately, but no one knows how high they could go.
The encouraging thing is that NC State's success is recently founded and thus could still be somewhat fluky. On the year they haven't been nearly as impressive, so one can hope that they aren't really this good. We'll find out soon.
Even through their success, a few problems have followed the Wuffies. The biggest of the problems has been rebounding, and that's where Maryland will have to take advantage. I'm not so sure that it's a size problem, either: Horner stays on the perimeter, and Howell isn't always around the basket, either. Getting second chances and preventing them from getting second chances could make a huge difference in this game.
Here's why it's hard to attack N.C. State too much: they're balanced. They have an inside presence, outside presences, and a legitimate PG. There isn't a particularly weak part of the team. Increasingly, it seems that when one is on, all are on. At the same time, as the first part of the season showed, when they're off, they're all off.
Keep in mind that this is a team on a run. The biggest question will be if they cool down against Maryland or not. If they do, and this is the earlier N.C. State - entirely possible - then Maryland will probably win. If they don't, and this is the same team that beat Duke, well, it'll be interesting.
Was this post vague? Yes, and I apologize for it. But there's no team harder to get a read on than N.C. State - a team that has gone from worst in the conference to smashing the best in the conference in just a week's time. Things will get clearer the closer we get, but I figured I'd give some reading material early on.
There's as much parity in the ACC as any other league, and last night's game showed it. But N.C. State is an up and down team, and its time for them to go down. Not saying they particularly will, but it's possible. If it's the same team that beat Duke, Maryland wouldn't have much of a chance, and that's not fun.