KANSAS CITY, MO - NOVEMBER 22: Jerian Grant #22 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish shoots while Donte Williams #15 of the Georgia Bulldogs tries to block during the Progressive CBE Classic consolation game on November 22, 2011 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
I don't want to get too optimistic on you - I've worked very hard to craft and maintain my perceived glass-half-empty disposition - but Maryland's Sunday BB&T Classic game against Notre Dame is totally winnable.
I'm not sure I would've thought that at the beginning of the year, and probably not at all after the Terrapins lost by 20 to Alabama or 26 to Iona in Puerto Rico. But things have changed.
For one, it looks like some legitimate progress is being made by Turgeon & Co., who darn near took down Illinois (overrated though they may be) just a few days ago. For another, the Fighting Irish might be in even worse shape than the Terrapins: they boast losses of 20 and 29 points (to Gonzaga and Missouri, respectively), and their best win on the season was against a 3-4 Detroit team ... at home ... by six points.
On top of all that, their leading scorer and most important player, senior swingman Tim Abromaitis, is out for the year with a blown ACL. For a team that was already Maryland-esque in their lack of quality depth, that might've been a death knell.
Based on how ND's season is going, a win might not be especially important; it could be argued that Maryland should be favored in this one. But if ever there was a fanbase in need of a pick-me-up right now, it's this one. A win over a name opponent, no matter how down on their luck, would be eagerly welcomed.
That's not to say such a win is in the bag. Sure, the Irish only have one starter from last year healthy and on their roster, but they're still a bit of a question mark in my mind. They've only faced one non-ranked high-major, Georgia, who they played on a neutral court. They ended up losing by 4, and the Dawgs would later lose to a team Maryland beat, Colorado, by only 2, but that was in Boulder. Transitive property almost never works in sports, I know; all I'm saying is that there's a really small distance between the three.
Oh, and by the way: for those still focused on Gary Williams' local recruiting, a loss will probably give you another reason to complain. Because without Abro on the floor, Mike Brey will lean heavily on two second-year players right from the DMV itself: sophomore point guard Eric Atkins, who went to Mt. St. Joseph's in Baltimore, and redshirt freshman wing Jerian Grant, who went to DeMatha. Not counting Abromaitis, the duo make up the Irish's two leading scorers.
They're joined by 6-8 senior wing Scott Martin, who was generally expected to take a leap in his senior year but hasn't really, and Pat Connaughton, a 6-5 freshman swingman who's emerged as a sixth man of sorts. Combined, that's actually a pretty impressive four-some on the perimeter. If they threw in Abromaitis, it'd be a really imposing group. As it stands, they're merely good.
That said, I think they're post game would kill to be "merely good." Without Carleton Scott or Tyrone Nash from last year, there's not much in the way of big bodies. Brey has only three true post players at his disposal: the beefy, underwhelming Jack Cooley, a 6-9 junior who's averaging 5 points in 20 minutes per game; Tom Knight, another 6-9 junior with 100 minutes of game experience to his name; and Mike Broghammer, yet another 6-9 junior who has the same number of knee surgeries (2) as his career points average.
They all have size - the average is 6-9 and 254 - but any of the three could pass for a Plumlee Brother. They're huge, uncoordinated, and lacking in skill. Berend Weijs can match any of the three for length, Ashton Pankey for physical strength, James Padgett for toughness, and all three could do it for athleticism and perhaps even refinement. Their size means that they're not real liabilities defensively, but they won't look to the post for points.
More importantly, the lack of size leads to some rebounding issues, especially offensively. They're alright as a defensive rebounding unit because every boxes out and no one cares about running, but their offensive rebounding percentage - a better portrayal of accurate rebounding ability - is 299th nationally out of 334 teams. They were dominated on the boards in all three of their losses. Maryland shouldn't be allowing any second chance points like they did against Illinois, and they should probably be getting a few of their own.
Another good area for Maryland (and you won't hear this said too much): depth. The Irish basically mirror the Terps with their dearth of bodies. Their rotation pretty much goes seven- or eight-deep without Abromaitis. They have seven guys who average at least 20 minutes per game, but no one else averages as much as 10. That's a bit more depth than Maryland has, but not too terribly much. That should play into the Terrapins' favor; with the exception of the Illinois game, I'd assume they aren't used to facing players who'll be as tired as they are at the 10:00 mark of the second half.
All that put together equates to a somewhat mid-major style. You know what I'm talking about: slow tempo, very careful offensively with good execution and few mistakes or turnovers, etc. Their A:TO ratio is an impressive 1.3, one of the highest ranks nationally. Surprisingly, they don't take a ton of three-pointers; in fact, they're pretty average in the number of their points that come from treys.
If Maryland gives them open looks, though, you can bet they'll knock them down. The foursome of Atkins, Grant, Connaughton, and Joey Brooks are averaging 5-10 shooting from deep every game. The lowest 3pt% of the three from long-range is Connaughton's 44%. They're very selective with their shots, which is part of the reason for the good numbers, but they have the ability to make a sometimes-lazy Maryland defense pay.
Atkins, as the point guard, might be the key to the Irish's remaining offense. He was expected to be the team's leader this year and is leading the team in scoring, Abro-notwithstanding, but look at his average stat-line in the Irish' three losses this year: 34 minutes, 8 points, 3-8 from the field, 1 assist, 4 turnovers. (Other players, like Grant, have been pretty steady in those losses.) Missouri has some great intense defensive pressure, and he really struggled against it. If Maryland's defense can frustrate him, they might be able to frustrate ND's offense in the process.
And good news: they don't press. Brey basically never presses. Nick Faust or Terrell Stoglin should be able to walk the ball up the court at their leisure. Once they get down there, it's a bit different. Brey's gone pack-line in the past, and though I don't know if they're still doing it, the end result looks pretty similar. They play solid and smart defense, trying to force outside shots and very rarely fouling (their defensive FT rate is one of the lowest in the country). Generally, that style allows quite a few open three-pointers - about 32% of the points ND allows comes from 3s, a pretty high rate. Their lack of intense defensive pressure also means that they very rarely force turnovers. Basically, they want to make the other team's offense beat them.
Against some talented teams, like Gonzaga or Missouri, that can get them in trouble. Against Maryland? The team that had trouble inbounding the ball a few games ago? It just might work. Then again, there's also the chance that a lack of pressure might allow the offense to flourish a bit. After all, the real struggles came against high-pressure teams like Alabama and Iona; the offense looked alright against more laid-back Illinois.
For the TL;DR crowd: I'm not sure that Notre Dame, stylistically, is a great match-up for Maryland. But the Irish's roster is about as good as it'll get for the Terrapins against a legitimate high-major. The key for me will almost certainly be rebounding: Notre Dame isn't very good at it thanks to a small roster. Maryland isn't fantastic at it either, but I like to think they have the potential to do really well there. If they do, perhaps they can bail out potential offensive ineffectiveness with some easy putback buckets (paging James Padgett) and keep the Irish to one shot per possession.
Throw in a semi-home crowd, and I have a good feeling about this one. After all, this is a team that lost to Georgia when they had their best player. It's a great chance for the team and the program to grab some momentum against a name opponent, no matter how down-on-their-luck the other guys might be. It's certainly not a benchmark-type game, but it'd be a nice morale-booster and a building block sort of win, as everything this year is.