Before anything else, we should probably qualify what Saturday's Maryland-Villanova game means for the Terrapins. It's not a "must win" in the exact sense of the word - Maryland can still make the NCAA tournament without a victory over Villanova, and it wouldn't even be hard to concoct a plausible scenario for it. But it's also not meaningless - a win over Villanova would give Maryland something that they've historically needed: room for error. With the ACC as weak as it is this season, any serious NCAA contender is going to need a premier out-of-conference victory or a crazy conference record. Or, more likely, both.
Maryland had a shot against Pitt. Whiff. And then one against Illinois. Whiff. And then one against Temple. You guessed it: whiff. Maryland played well in all three games, sure, but at the end of the day, all that matters is getting a win to stick on the resume. The experience gained in those four games will be crucial, but all of these "moral victories" will be for naught without getting what truly matters: that premier out-of-conference win. You have to cash that experience in at some point. There's one more chance to do it: Saturday at Villanova.
It won't be easy, not as if you'd expect it to be. Villanova is a bit of an underrated and overlooked power, which is saying something considering they're a top 10 team. They're 15-1 this season, with the lone loss coming against schizophrenic Tennessee in the Preseason NIT. Since then, they've topped previously undefeated Cincinnati, hot-shooting Louisville, and even Temple, the same team that beat Maryland by three in the BB&T Classic.
Nova lost the heart and soul of last year's team in point guard Scottie Reynolds, but his biggest asset - perimeter scoring - hasn't been difficult to replace. Villanova is loaded with solid guards, from sophomore point guard (and former McDonald's All-American) Maalik Wayns to undersized combo (and New York playground legend) Corey Fisher to occasionally overlooked sharpshooter swingman Corey Stokes. Don't forget about Dominic Cheek, either; the sophomore 6-6 swingman is yet another HS All-American.
So no, the Wildcats aren't exactly lacking in guard play. The good news is that defending the perimeter is Maryland's specialty this year; no matter how many points Fisher can score in pickup, he'll likely have trouble against Maryland. The other bit of good news is that, unlike the past few tough opponents, Nova isn't a particularly tall team. Wayns is 6-2, which gives him a slight advantage over, say, Terrell Stoglin, but Fisher is only 6-1 and Stokes just 6-5. For once, Maryland won't be at a height disadvantage on the perimeter, and that should let Gary Williams get a few favorable matchups.
That said, it cuts both ways. The pressure that usually gets Maryland a few easy runouts isn't likely to work against Nova's guards, which are turnover-stingy and experienced (for the most part). Wayns is a little turnover-prone (3 a game), but Villanova's one of the best teams in the country (#57, to be exact) at not turning over the rock. We'll see how well that holds up, but that's worrisome considering Maryland's struggles in the halfcourt game - they often rely on getting fast-break buckets for points, and not having those may be killer.
The post play is solid, but not fantastic. Antonio Pena, the 6-8 senior that's been around forever, is, yes, still around and averaging 9.7 points and 7.1 boards. And yes, this team is a lot like last year's, with the exception of Reynolds' absence. There is one moderate difference: Mouphtaou Yarou, the 6-10 phenom center, who missed last year's game due to sickness, is fully healthy. His statistical output, for the record, is exceedingly similar to Pena's: about 9 points and 7 boards. He's inexperienced and not very polished, but this will be a huge test for Jordan Williams. Sometimes, Williams plays height. Sometimes, he plays strength. And sometimes, talent. But very rarely has he ever played all three; if the double-double streak is ever going to die, it might on Saturday.
Everyone thinks Fisher is the guy to watch out for, probably thanks to that triple-digit game over the summer, and in some ways he is. He's the centerpiece of the team and takes more shots than anyone else, yes, but he's been up and down this season, including a five-point performance against Temple, a three-point game against Tennessee, and a four-point game against Penn. Unsurprisingly, Nova struggled in all three of those games; they lost to Tennessee, of course, and only beat Temple by four and a terrible Penn team by ten. Things have improved since the start of Big East play: Fisher has averaged 17.25 ppg over the past four games and has again started to take control of the team.
But for as much pub as Fisher gets, it's Stokes that leads the team in scoring. He's not the most varied of offensive weapons, but he's an excellent three-point shooter and is pretty consistently putting up around 20 a game. Wayns is the third of the big three perimeter scorers, and the only player other than the two Coreys averaging double-digits in points. Yarou and Pena are pressences on the glass and defensively, and they'll provide a few garbage buckets a game, but neither is any type of offensive star.
Cheek is the first man off the bench, and one of the few of note. Those six all receive upwards of 20 minutes; the next closest, in terms of minutes, is Isaiah Armwood, at just 13 minutes a game. Nova has talent in their depth, but not very much experience. If Jordan Williams can get some players in foul trouble, Maryland might gain a bigger-than-normal advantage. If nothing else, though, the lack of PT most of the rest of the team receives lets me get away without describing too many other reserves.
Defensively, Nova's pretty solid. Both Yarou and Pena make life in the middle tough, and the guards are pretty tough defenders. They don't force many turnovers, but other than that they're a tough unit to crack. They're in the top 20 nationally in both eFG% and 3pt%, both of which are bad signs for Maryland, which is already in a shooting slump. And the experience of Pena and Yarou mean it might be tough for Jordan to get the normal easy buckets inside.
I'm fully expecting this game to be a close one. There's no good reason to expect othewise. Maryland's fantastic defensively and has played teams just as good as (or, in Pitt and Duke's cases, better than) Nova, holding their own in the process. The biggest key seems to be Fisher: as he goes, so go the Wildcats. Keep him quiet, and I get the feeling that Maryland might just come away with a win.
Of course, knocking down some free throws and three-pointers might not hurt, either, but what else is new?