At ACC's Halfway Point, Terps Sitting Squarely on the Bubble

In case you hadn't realized, Maryland's halfway through their ACC season, which is a perfect time to sit back and analyze both where they are now and where they're headed in the postseason.

Unfortunately, the fact that Maryland just lost by 18 to Duke means now might not have the perfect circumstances, because it lends itself to hyperbolic doomsday statements, but we go with we have. And what we have right now is the definition of "bubble", a 4-4 ACC team with a few strengths and just as many weaknesses. Unfortunately, their resume reflects that.

There's no consistent perimeter scoring, a lack of athleticism, and some serious shooting issues. They're better off defensively, but as Kyle Singler made perfectly obvious last night, they're not impervious to a hot-shooting team. Jordan Williams is as good as advertised and the Terps are as gritty as ever, and those two factors make them tough to play, but their flaws seem to be fatal ones. 

That means that when Maryland gets an unexpectedly strong performance from a perimeter player, like Cliff Tucker's 17 against Pitt or Terrell Stoglin's 15 against Temple, they'll play good teams close and beat average teams easily. When they don't, like last night or against Virginia Tech, they'll be prone to losing games, often with big deficits. It's hard enough to win in the ACC to start with, and when you take out the perimeter, it gets much harder.

The interesting thing (to me, at least) is how little the first half of the ACC season told us about on which part of the bubble they stand. They've played a quarter of their eight games against the best team in the conference, keep in mind, and half of them against teams that figure to be in the bottom-half of the conference this year (Wake, UVA, GT, Clemson). In other words, you might want to take the record with a grain of salt; two of the losses came against the class of the conference, while the four wins came against teams Maryland should've beaten. We're still drawing a lot on non-conference play when analyzing this team.

For the record, the remaining two games against comparable teams that Maryland did play both came on Maryland's home floor...and they lost both. We haven't yet seen UMD play comparable, but not better, opposition night-in and night-out, but once the Terrapins deal with Wake on Saturday, that's all they're going to see the rest of the way. That lends itself to some measure of the unknown when forecasting where Maryland stands.

As far as the NCAA tournament goes, it's still the biggest goal (of course) and it's still well within reach. Maryland's swung-and-missed at all of their signature win opportunities (PittIllinoisTempleDukeVillanova, and Duke again), which hurts, but it's a good thing that they have all of those games on the schedule. Strength of schedule is a component the selection committee looks at; it's not a huge one, but it does factor in. It would be so nice right now to have one of those close losses as a W, but at least they're still serving a positive purpose.

And meanwhile, Maryland might have a sneaky top 50 RPI win, thanks to Penn State's turnaround. That's not the "name" victory that would've helped so much, but it's not only a top 50 win (if it holds up), it's a top 50 win on the road. That's the type of win that could push a team onto the good side of the fence.

But the biggest potential roadblock is probably the ACC itself, which seems to be at its lowest point in years. Whether it's that bad or not is debatable, but what's important is that that's the perception, and that there is at least some truth behind it. It's not a guarantee, but there's a strong likelihood that some committee members may - consciously or otherwise - artificially cap the number of bids the ACC gets. They may not say that they won't let more than 4 ACC teams in (and actually, they could) but they'd likely give the nod to, say, a Big 12 team with a comparable resume as a "reward" for the more grueling conference record.

That begins to look a little scary when you consider that the ACC has Duke, UNC, Florida State, and Virginia Tech, all of which seem to have bids that are stronger than Maryland (although only slightly in VT's case). Then there's BC, which is probably around Maryland's level. If the selection committee limits ACC bids to around four, Maryland's going to have an uphill battle.

The other negative effect of playing in a down ACC is that the rest of their schedule is devalued: Maryland has no current top 25 opponents remaining on their schedule. Normally, they'd have at least one or two more opportunities at a big win, plus a well-regarded group surrounding it. Now, even tearing through the rest of the conference would look only so impressive to the selection committee; 12-4 would certainly get in, and Maryland would hold a good chance with 11-5, but even at 10-6 a lot would depend on what happens in the ACC tournament and with the rest of the conference.

Assume that Maryland has to go 10-6 to have a chance at an NCAA Tournament bid. (Right now, that's a safe bet). Keeping in mind that would require a 6-2 finish to the season, let's look at their closing conference schedule:

  • vs. Wake Forest (RPI 239, KP 257): An automatic win, but it does little to help matters as far as tournament hopes go.
  • @ Boston College (RPI 43, KP 76): Maryland gets a chance at a top 50 RPI win on the road here, which makes it more than a little important. Maryland lost to BC the first time around, but the Eagles are in a tailspin, losing their last three each by double-digits. This is a toss-up to me, but Maryland stands a great chance at it. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like BC is going to hold on to that top 50 RPI ranking, which may devalue this win in the long run.
  • @ Virginia Tech (RPI 62, KP 30): This isn't a top 50 RPI opponent yet, but I'd be willing to bet they'll get there by the end of the year. VT's starting to gel even without Dorenzo Hudson, and though that makes them dangerous, it also makes this game valuable. I don't have much confidence in Maryland in this game considering they were thrashed the last time around, but they've surprised me before.
  • vs. N.C. State (RPI 109, KP 99): This is a lose-lose situation for Maryland. A win here won't do much, if it does anything, for MD's tournament hopes, but it's far from a Wake-style auto-win. The Wuffies are terribly coached and very undisciplined, but they're undeniably talented. It wouldn't surprise me if they won a few games they weren't supposed to down the stretch. This is the type of game Maryland has to win to keep 10-6 a possibility.
  • vs. Florida State (RPI 58, KP 42): Another potential top 50 RPI opponent that isn't one yet. FSU defense is ridiculous and probably better than Maryland's, so this going to be one ugly game. This should be one of the tougher games on the schedule, and I could see it go either way.
  • @ UNC (RPI 13, KP 13): This might be the biggest remaining game on the schedule. UNC isn't Duke or Pitt, but they are a top 20 RPI team, and pairing this road win with Penn State might be enough to convince the committee that Maryland can beat okay teams on the road. Many people weren't afraid of UNC to start the year, but they've beaten Kentucky and are coming together fast, Harrison Barnes especially. It's tough to win in Chapel Hill to start with, but it's harder when you have to cover someone like Barnes.
  • @ Miami (RPI 71, KP 62): On the surface, this is a huge trap game. People will look the Canes, see 1-6 in their last 7, and move on. But of the 6 losses, only two came at home, all were against KP top 100 teams, and 5 were against KP top 50 teams. What's more, the only game they lost by double-digits was to Duke...by 11...on the road. The average margin of defeat was less than 5. They just went through the grinder, and they're going to reap the benefits down the stretch. Maybe it's just me, but I think it's a toss-up.
  • vs. Virginia (RPI 138, KP 128): Should be a win, but you never know with UVA. A victory does little to help.
Before any other thought, what's your reaction when you see that schedule? Mine is "unpredictable." I wouldn't be shocked if Maryland went 7-1 including a road win over UNC, which would nearly guarantee their place in the NCAAT. I also wouldn't be shocked if they dropped five of those.

Maryland almost certainly needs to go 6-2, probably including one win against UNC or VT. And they'll probably still need a win (or two, depending upon who the first round matchup is) in the ACC tournament. At that point I'd start to feel somewhat confident, but they'd still be depending on what's happening in the rest of the conference and around the ACC.

Again, we've learned little about Maryland in the ACC season. We know they're the epitome of a bubble team, and that that's no fun down the stretch (until/unless they clinch a bid). We know Jordan Williams is good and Maryland's guards aren't (at least not yet). But past that, we don't know if they're capable of beating decent teams on the road; we know they can play with great ones, but they dropped both of their ACC games against similar teams. Despite only eight games left on the schedule, Maryland's still a mystery in a lot of ways.

We'll learn a lot about them in the next few weeks, most importantly whether or not they deserve to be playing in the NCAA tournament. Oh bubble, I missed you so.
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