And just like that, here comes the first real test of the season for Mark Turgeon and the Maryland Terrapins. After dealing with UNC-Wilmington in a 71-62 warm-up victory, the Terps now head south for the first of three games in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. Their draw? The Alabama Crimson Tide, ranked 15th in the country.
Yeah, these things get going fast.
The Tide were one of the more head-scratching teams from last season, starting miserably - they lost to Providence, Iowa, and Seton Hall early in the year - before turning things around late and winning 10 of their last 13 to fight their way into the NCAA Tournament picture. They didn't quite get in, but they rampaged through the NIT before falling to Wichita State in the final.
They did lose two starters - forward Chris Hines and guard Charvez Davis - plus their sixth man, guard Senario Hillman, from that team. Despite that, they likely emerged as a strong squad than last year. For one, the three starters they do return were far-and-away their three most important players: center JaMychal Green, combo forward Tony Mitchell, and point guard Trevor Releford. That trio accounted for the Tide's top three scorers, their top two rebounders, and their top assist man, meaning what was lost from the squad was mostly peripheral.
And it's likely that the replacements for Hines, Davis, and Hillman are actually more talented, thanks to Anthony Grant's monster recruiting class. (I still think he would've been Sean Miller-level perfect for Maryland's opening.) The group is headlined by three swingmen: former five-star Trevor Lacey and former four-stars and top-50 prospects Rodney Cooper and Levi Randolph. Though inexperienced, the group should easily be able to make up the 20 or so points Hines, Davis, and Hillman had per game.
The big names, though, remain Green, Mitchell, and Releford. Green, a 6-8 center and First Team All-SEC pick, is one of the best big men in the country and should cause major, major problems for the Terrapins' front line. The problems Green poses are pretty simple: he's big, he's talented, and he's experienced, which is just about the opposite of Maryland's front court right now. He's more of a banger than, say, a Duncan-type, meaning he doesn't possess a particularly refined inside game or the ability to step outside, but he has great touch around the hoop and works hard to get position. I'm hoping Aston Pankey, the most physically developed and athletic of Maryland's big men, is the one to match up with him, though the presence of Mitchell may make that a bit tricky.
Speaking of: Mitchell is a more interesting character. He's only 6-6 and probably projects as an NBA 2, but mans the 4 for Alabama. He's disruptive, active, energetic, and tough, which is part of the reason he can pull it off. He's an extraordinary rebounder for his size and has emerged as the offense's #2 scoring option despite not really having a refined offensive game. He's not going to kill you from outside - he's a 29% career outside shooter - but he's dangerous as a slasher or operating off-the-ball, where he often scores off of cuts or garbage buckets (put-backs and the like). Like a rich man's Sean Mosley.
Releford is the other big player, and I really do love his game. He was made the starting point guard as a true freshman last year, and did really well in a somewhat high-pressure situation as the team's third-leading scorer (11.0 ppg) and leading assist man (3.4 apg). He's a bit of a Stoglin-like character, as he's not physically imposing (only 6-1) but is surprisingly quick and loves to get out and run, though he's more toned-down than we've seen Stoglin play recently and a better pure point. It's likely that those two will match up with each other, and it should be a battle, especially because we've seen Stoglin get a chip on his shoulder in situations like these before.
As you might be able to tell, Alabama is a good but not quite great offensive team. As their wings progress they'll likely be tough to stop in the half-court, but right now they're still not there yet. I haven't watched enough Bama games to know for sure, but if I had to guess I'd say they'd be prone to having the occasional half-court problems, given that their top scorers are a banger in the post, an energy player, and a quick point guard who thrives on the transition game or slashing to the hoop. If Green can be stopped - a big if, though I'll be intrigued to see how Pankey handles him - I'm wondering if the other guys can truly pick up the slack.
Where they really thrive is on the other end of the court, where they're one of the best in the country. Green is susceptible to get beaten by some more physically developed big men, but there aren't too many of those floating around the NCAA. Past that, Releford's quickness is problem-causing and disruptive, and Mitchell is again sort of like a more athletic Mosley. They were in the top 10 last year in defensive efficiency, and through two games this year they're at #9. We saw some serious issues with Maryland's offense against UNC-Wilmington, particularly with regards to lazy passing and poor shooting, and if they reappear on Thursday you can be sure the Tide will feast on them.
Strangely, Alabama doesn't really like to get out and run - they were one of the slower teams in the country last year (257th in tempo) and have been even slower this year (294th). Basically, when Releford doesn't push the issue, they slow it down and grind it out. Maryland will likely do the same, no matter how much better I think they'd do if they tried to become a transition team. Obviously, that plays into Alabama's favor, as at least right now they seem to be the better team. Playing them the way they want to play isn't likely to cause them any problems.
I do think Alabama might be a bit worse than their #15 ranking, unless the NCAA is way worse this year than I had expected. But they're not a good match-up for the Terrapins, with a dominant big man, a slow tempo, and a suffocating defense. Maryland will have to be much more tidy than they were on Sunday to have a real shot at this one, and James Padgett or Ashton Pankey will have to show up with another unexpected performance.
As a happy sidenote: you may remember the last time the Terrapins played in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off (then branded as the Puerto Rico Shootout) as the event where Steve Francis made essentially his national debut. Maryland was ranked #5 in the country, and they beat 10th-ranked UCLA 70-54 before demolishing a hapless Pitt 87-52 in the final. Francis dropped 18 and 19 in the final two games, respectively.