With all due respect to College of Charleston, the "real" season is upon us. How awesome, right? Gone are the games against the Seattles and Maines of the world, and they're replaced by...Pitt, a consensus top 5 team in the country with a wealth of talent and experience.
Good trade, right?
Ready or not, Maryland plays the Panthers under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden (and ESPN2) on Thursday (that's tomorrow) at 7:00. That means it's time for a first look.
You can get a feel of how good Pitt is by just looking at their rankings: 4 in the coaches' poll, 5 in the AP poll, a scary 2 in KenPom (I don't care how early it is and how little data they're working with, that's intimidating). The Panthers return four starters from last year, losing only Jermaine Dixon at point guard (yep, that's Juan's little half-bro). Returnees include the Panthers' two stars at guard, Brad Wanamaker and Ashton Gibbs, plus a variety of skilled role players.
Just an aside, I kind of get the feeling that Pitt's not getting the credit the deserve from the Maryland fanbase, especially the casual fans, because they're not sexy and they've kind of been floating under the radar nationally. So don't forget: this is a top 5 team and they're very good and very experienced.
Gibbs is probably the team's best player, and if the name sounds familiar, it's because he's the older brother of Sterling Gibbs, current Maryland commitment. He's 6-2 and a score-first point guard; he led the Panthers in scoring last year and topped 20 in the first two games of this season. He's a very complete player: in addition to being one of the better outside shooters in the country, he's physically strong and a gritty floor leader that provides solid defense. He's very underrated and their go-to scorer.
Wanamaker, a 6-4 senior shooting guard, is arguably the most productive player of the team. He's averaging 19 points, 6 assists, and 5 boards through the Panthers first three games, was the Panthers' second-leading scorer last year, and was the best player on the floor in their squeaker over Rhode Island to start the season (more on that in a second). He's not far from what we all kind of want Mosley to be: similar height, similar physical strength, solid numbers on the boards and in assists, good defense, and an expanded scoring role. Wanamaker only had 12 a game last year, so he's not been 19+ for very long, but he's clearly dangerous.
There aren't a lot of names on this team past that. One of the biggest, Nasir Robinson, is currently injured. Robinson is 6-5 but plays the 4 spot for the Panthers. He's wide-bodied, aggressive, and arguably the Panthers' top inside scoring presence. He's been replaced by Talib Zanna, a redshirt freshman that came a point away from a double-double against Rhode Island and a rebound away against North Florida. He's raw, but has a great body (6-9, 225) and is athletic. Zanna won't get starter minutes, but will provide size and a lot of rebounding (led all players with 11 boards against RI).
The starting lineup is rounded out by Gilbert Brown, an athletic 6-6 senior wing that was the Panthers' sixth man last year, and Gary McGhee, a huge senior (6-10, 250) that is one of the few that will be able to match Jordan Williams in the post. He doesn't score a lot and hasn't been an incredible effective rebounder lately, but he is the Panthers' biggest (literally) contributor.
With that out of the way, know that Pitt is very good. They're tough, they're versatile, they're athletic, and they're strong. There is some good news, though: for one, there are some injuries, taking out Robinson and probably making Brown and backup forward Lamar Patterson a little gimpy. Also, for all the consistency on this team, there's not a lot of star power: we know that Wanamaker and Gibbs are great, but past that, it looks like a lot of filler players, to be honest. Really good filler, but filler nonetheless, and that means that stopping one of Gibbs or Wanamaker might result in an offensive bottleneck. I'm certainly in for a rude awakening here, but I call it like I see it.
Oh, and about that Rhode Island game: against the Panthers' only "real" opponent of the season, they really struggled. They were losing for much of the first half and needed a 9-0 run to take a one-point lead into the break. The rest of the game remained at a similar score, with Pitt leading by only 2 with 1:40 left. They ended up making 7 of their 8 final free throws to stretch the lead to the final margin of 8.
Unfortunately for Maryland, Rhode Island succeeded in one big area in which Maryland's expected to fail: the 3-point battle. RI shot 44% from beyond the arc (14-31, to be exact). Pitt, on the other hand, was 3 of 16 for just 20%. The Terrapins still don't know if they'll have a consistent outside shooting (logic says yes, evidence says maybe, both say it's too early to say definitively). They should be able to defend some of Pitt's outside shooters, but they'll need a better performance out of Sean Mosley, probably their best on-ball defender, than he's given the past two games.
The good news is that RI pressed and Pitt did struggle. The Panthers are generally a slowdown team, and Rhode Island was able to push the tempo. Pitt only turned the ball over 14 times, an average but acceptable figure, but the pressure forced some uncharacteristic misses on shots that they likely would've knocked down otherwise. Considering that pressing and a fast tempo will likely be Maryland's calling card this year, that's a much better sign. If you had to identify what kept the game close, the differential in 3-pointers and the pressure defense that forced Pitt mistakes and pushed the tempo would both be at the top.
The one area where Rhode Island really struggled is one that Maryland should be able to provide: size. Maryland's not a particularly big team, but they have something RI didn't: an impact post player. The only one they might've had got into foul trouble. The Panthers out-rebounded the Rams by 11, and RI's top rebounder had only 6 boards. Just a hunch, but I'm guessing that Jordan Williams will be a little more productive than that.
Pitt's going to be a very tough team to beat. They're not a top 5 team for no reason. To me, this game is more about figuring out where Maryland stands than getting a big win: if the Terrapins can keep it close and play well, a loss won't mean that they're not "for real." If they get blown out of the building, we might have a problem. And, actually, we still might not. Pitt has the potential to be that good. I'm not yet sure they are that good yet, but if they prove that they are, there's no shame in it. A win is, to be honest, gravy, and it would be that way for almost every team in the country.
That doesn't mean that Maryland can't win or even that they won't. As always, counting out any Gary Williams-led team is a very foolish move indeed.