This is Good Cliff. Beware Bad Cliff.
Bob Knight said a lot of things a lot of times in the Maryland-Illinois game. "It's like the defensive back and the wide receiver," for example. And, "That's the most important play of the game so far." And, "He took that shot too quickly, the shot clock was only at 11 seconds." And, "I counted, he dribbled the ball 19 times." (I counted. He said that 6 times). And, most of all, "It really hurts to lose two straight games at a tournament like this."
That last one, disagreeable as it is, does lead in quite nicely for this post. Maryland comes out of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic with two tough, close losses to two teams among the top 20 in the country. Were the two games in New York a waste and unsuccessful for Maryland? I don't think so (more on why in a sec). If nothing else, though, we learned a lot about this team. So, same as before, a few takeaways from the tourney:
Jordan Williams really is good. Against Pitt, a team with size that few teams will match, Jordan struggled a little. He got into early foul trouble and ended the double-double streak at 5, ending up 2 rebounds too short. Even in that game he was respectable, and he was great against Illinois in the second game. He was again stifled by foul trouble and played even six fewer minutes than against Pitt, but he had 15 points and 13 boards. That was in only 26 minutes. We're now certain: he's the guy we thought he would be and Maryland's best player. It's not close. Now, the next step is getting him to stay out of foul trouble, because he's really the one guy that makes this team run smoothly.
The Saga of Cliff Tucker has begun. The controversy that will surround Maryland's second-leading scorer over the next few weeks is so obviously coming that I'm officially naming it The Saga of Cliff Tucker already. After a series of up and down seasons, he came out firing this year, averaging 15 points a game and leading all scorers against Pitt. This was Cliff's team, or so it looked.
Against Illinois, he was 3-11 for 10 points, plus 6 boards and 2 assists. He struggled, but for most, that would be a fine statline. Hey, he's a perimeter scorer that's just getting introduced to the role of #2 guy; he's entitled for a few rough games. No so much, sayeth Gary Williams.
During Maryland's comeback, at about the four-minute mark with the lead at just 5, Tucker tried a no-look pass in transition to Jordan Williams. It went straight to Illinois point guard Demetri McCamey instead, and led to an and-one on the other end. That was a 5-point swing, taking the lead from potentially just 3 all the way back up to 10. From that point on, Tucker sat. It was a lot of fun watching Pe'Shon Howard jack three pointers while Maryland's best deep shooter was on the bench.
Are there potential reasons for it? Dozens. One of them, of course, is that Cliff has never really exited Gary's doghouse and that he wanted to set an example after that bad pass. For the record, I'm deferring to Gary here: I am not saying he should've been on the floor, nor that the wrong decision was made. But this was more than just "another game"; this was a premier game and should've been (and likely was) treated like an ACC game. That, of course, brings up the potential that Maryland's best perimeter scorer might be sitting every time he has a bad game, and that'll make things mighty interesting.
There's no real Plan B offensively. When Jordan was out, this team needs someone else to get buckets. We thought that was Cliff Tucker. Against Pitt, it was Cliff Tucker. Against Illinois, it definitely wasn't, and that made things halfcourt offense an adventure for the 14 minutes that Williams wasn't on the floor. Jordan is a potential star, but if he gets into foul trouble - and it looks like he will against top-tier competition - this team doesn't have anywhere to go.
There's also a major weakness in perimeter shooting. Tucker nailed an NBA three. Stoglin hit a couple of ill-advised 3s. And that was about the high point as far as perimeter shooting goes. I can't count how many wide open threes Stoglin, Mosley, and Howard missed (oh, yes I can: four). Eric Hayes ain't walking through that door. This is going to hurt until someone, like maybe Haukur Palsson, steps up to show that they can knock the long-range jumper down consistently.
Unless Terrell Stoglin can fill both of those holes. Who knows? As much as Bob Knight liked to talk about how Stoglin would take shots you wouldn't like, he ended up taking over for Tucker and doing darn well. He was 6-12 from the field and 3-7 from deep, not turning the ball over once. Now, he didn't really get people involved (no assists) but he's basically Scottie Reynolds. He's a scorer's scorer and a bit of a chucker, but he was effective. He's passed Pe'Shon Howard in the PG race - not for good, mind you - and should be pushing for minutes as the year goes on.
This team has at least half of the mentality thing down. Maryland's young, without a lot of veteran leadership. Those are the type of teams that have mentality problems. But this team doesn't seem to have them, or at least doesn't have some of them: they came out swinging against Pitt and never gave up in that game, giving themselves a shot at the end. They then took the loss and came out just as well against Illinois, another team they were expected to lose to. And again, they got down but never gave up and came just one of those three-pointers falling away from winning. Gary Williams' teams are usually gritty and resilient, and this squad is no different. The confidence that's exuded from almost everyone on the team helps.
Now, what will be more important and probably more telling will be how they show up against Wake Forest, Penn State, UNC-Greensboro, and the rest of the "easy win" bunch. That's been a Gary weakness over the past few years, but this team really impressed me the past two games with their mentality. Hopefully they have it down all the way around.
Don't let the two losses fool you: Maryland is, and will be, fine. Perimeter defense can be fixed - just close out. So can FT shooting - just make 100 every day before you leave practice. Some of the other problems run deeper - Jordan's foul trouble, the lack of a secondary option, point guard play. But this team just went toe-to-toe and never backed down against two of the better teams in the country. Compare that to last year's team, which went to Maui and got blown out by a Cincinnati team that lost in the second round of the NIT and a good, not great,
Gonzaga Wisconsin team. This team is real.
Opportunities for a big win will be there down the road. This is the biggest reason I'm fine with losing two games: Maryland identified two big problems and proved to themselves that they can hang with some of the best teams in the country. If they can get through one of these games without yet another fatal flaw developing, they just might win one. Temple and Villanova, both of which are top 25 teams, are still on the schedule. Drop one, and Maryland has a nice premier win. Drop both, and we can start looking at seeding more than whether or not they're in or out.
In a nutshell, Maryland's trip wasn't a waste. Would've have been nice to steal a game? Of course. But finding out a lot about this team, from their strengths to their flaws, and showing up against two great teams was a very good showing considering what some of the expectations were.