Apologies, all, for the huge near-jinx caused by last week's non-preview of Mount St. Mary's and the coast post. To combat any forthcoming bad juju, I'll redeem myself with an early preview of Maryland's next opponent, the Florida International Golden Panthers - or, as you may better know them by, That Team That's Coached By Isiah Thomas.
Zeke, the Hall of Fame point guard and legendary coaching disaster, took over the FIU reins back in 2009. His coaching acumen hasn't been revelatory - his record so far is 18-44 - but, as you might've expected, he's been a solid recruiter. (In fact, the Golden Panthers may have the most purely talented big man on the floor on Wednesday in the form of Dominique Ferguson, the former top-75 talent who's become an everyday starter in his sophomore year. More on him soon.)
Thomas may yet lead some sort of recruiting-based comeback for the moribund program, but they're not there yet. They have talent and the ability to pull off some upsets - they beat George Mason in overtime on a neutral court - but don't let that skew your view of the team too much. They also stand 2-5 on the year, sporting two big black eyes in the form of losses to Arkansas Pine-Bluff and Alabama St., both of which count FIU as their only win and are sub-300 in KenPom. Ouch.
Of course, Maryland probably expected to breeze through Mount St. Mary's, a team with a similar resumé, and we saw how that went. It's likely that the Golden Panthers are actually a more talent team than The Mount, too, so if they come ready to play they could certainly pose some problems.
Despite Ferguson's standing as probably the most talented Golden Panther, he's certainly not the centerpiece of their offense. The big names are actually DeJuan Wright, a 6-3 senior 2 guard, and Phil Taylor, a 5-9 sophomore point. Wright is the more seasoned of the two, and acts like it: he's leading FIU in minutes played as well as in scoring (nearly 16 a game), is selective and efficient about his outside shot (47% from deep on only 2 a game), and rebounds at a really high rate for his size, pulling down nearly 7 boards a game. He's sensible, efficient, and effective.
The pint-sized Taylor, on the other hand, loves him some Phil Taylor, at least from what I can tell. He leads FIU in attempted shots, but, as noted above, not scoring, and while he also has nearly 5 assists per game, he's also averaging 4 turnovers per game. I haven't seen him play one bit, but the stats are certainly the profile of someone who likes to just make stuff happen, and sometimes succeeds and sometimes fails. If he's on (ala Julian Norfleet, Sam Maniscalco, and basically everyone Maryland plays) he can cause a lot of problems. If not, his usage rate, which is only a little shy of Stoglinian levels, will probably ensure a rough day offensively.
The third big name on the team is Jeremy Allen, a 6-4 senior who mans the 3. He's rather inconsistent, having poured in totals of 21, 20, and 19 along with more pedestrian 4- and 7-point performances. Much of that has to do with the three-ball: he takes five a game, with a 36% percentage. When they go, as they did Mason (4-8, 20 points) and Coastal Carolina (3-7, 19 points), he's fine. When they don't, as they didn't against Oral Roberts (0-2, 4 points) and Georgia State (0-3, 8 points), he'll struggle.
Zeke has three talented perimeter players, all of whom are good or at least streaky from deep. All three get quite a lot of use, and they'll challenge Maryland's perimeter defense greatly. If the Terrapins haven't improved, we'll probably find out pretty quickly. And it isn't three-pointers - while Allen scares me a bit from deep, all three score from all levels in the offense, from finishing at the rim to the mid-range game. They especially like to draw fouls and get to the free throw stripe. Maryland's man-to-man D will get a lot of use today.
Ferguson is more of a pawn in comparison. He's the tallest starter and so mans the 5 despite being a true 4. As such he's required to play quite a bit, averaging upwards of 30 minutes a game, but he's not really a focal point right now. He's averaging 7 points and 7 boards per game, which is fine for most sophomore bigs but is probably a little less than expected given his lofty ranking and the talent around/against him. He's yet to score more than 11 points in a game this season, and isn't likely to pose a significant challenge to the more experienced James Padgett or physically stronger Ashton Pankey.
Elsewhere, the most notable thing about FIU is probably their lack of height and depth. Tola Akomolafe, a 6-6 junior, mans the 4 and he averages just shy of five points and five boards per game. When Maryland goes with two big men, they should be at a fairly sizable advantage at the 4, and Akomolafe should actually allow them to go four-guards with some regularity if that's a look Turgeon wants to develop.
No one else averages more than 20 minutes per game, meaning their starting five will play the vast majority of the game. The two players who consistently come off the bench are Cameron Bell, a 6-3 junior who's taken a grand total of 16 shots all season, and Gilles Dierickx, a 7-0 freshman Belgian big man. He hasn't gotten a lot of usage and it's doubtful that he'll get a ton of run in College Park, but his size could help equalize, if nothing else.
All things told, FIU isn't a particularly scary team, unless you really want to take the glass-half-full view and look at their volatility, which could mean a big performance is lurking. Otherwise, they're not particularly efficient offensively (269th), not great defensively (279th), and have a poor eFG% (291st). Heck, they're not even great at three-point shooting: their 31.9% as a team is 221st in the country.
The only scary thing about FIU is actually their ability to force turnovers, which is one of the best rates in the country at 48th nationally. Given Maryland's own struggles in that area all year long, it's okay to have some doubts about their ability to hold onto the ball.
Boy, it's these types of games that make you miss Pe'Shon Howard's steadying backcourt presence, right? Too bad he won't be available.
Oh, wait. He might actually get some playing time.
If MVPe' does in fact see the court, you can bet that, so long as Maryland wins, how he looks will be the biggest storyline of the day. (Unless Terrell Stoglin drops 40 or so. Which I really want him to do one of these days.) In fact, that underlines what I've been saying about these six (now five) games: this is all about Maryland getting better, and coming out in January a significantly improved squad.
If Pe' can't go, then I expect Maryland will continue to look like they've looked for the past several games now: Nick Faust at the point, Terrell Stoglin filling it up, with James Padgett performing well as a clean-up guy down low. Like they did against MSM, expect them to try to look at places other than Stoglin for offense, as they'll need to develop those avenues eventually and these few games are their final chances to experiment
All things told, Florida International is probably a bigger threat than Mt. St. Mary's ... but not by a lot. If Turgeon's crew comes ready to play - particularly if they come ready to play perimeter defense - they shouldn't struggle. I know the same was said against MSM, but it was true then and it's just as true now.