Maryland's four-point squeaker of a win on Saturday was a big result for the Terrapins for a number of reasons; perhaps chief among them is that it provided some much-needed good vibes before the schedule took a seriously tough turn. If you're wondering, that turn includes, over the two weeks or so, three road games and two games against top-10 teams in the country. They'll be fighting for anything they can get then, so getting one in the win column now was critical.
And that tough stretch begins ... at Miami. And if you're first reaction is "Oh, Miami's not that scary," think again. Or, rather, remember this: since the Canes joined the ACC, Maryland has never won in Coral Gables. They've had five shots at it; they've gone 0-5. And those losses often happened to come in the strangest of ways: last year, when little-used freshman reserve Rion Brown went off for 19 points on 6-7 shooting from three before fading back into obscurity; in 2009, when Jack McClinton, a Baltimore native, captained the U to a 17-point rally culminating in three-pointer with 24 seconds left; or even Maryland's first time making the trip, when they were ranked #22 in the country but lost in overtime thanks to 27 points from Guillermo Diaz and an strange end-of-game sequence involving an airball, an offensive rebound, and a power forward named Will Frisby knocking down two free throws to ice the game.
I think it's time to acknowledge it: there might be a curse of Coral Gables.
All superstition aside, Miami is sort of in an in-between zone right now, much like Maryland. They're somewhere between "mediocre" and "good" and are still trying to find their footing in the big scheme of things. Their resumé doesn't have any particularly good wins, but when your worst loss comes from a road trip to Ole Miss that went to overtime, well, that's not terrible. They've actually played a decently tough schedule, and at 3-3 in the ACC are plenty respectable. In fact, it looks like they're to hit a good stride, though that could just as easily be the scheduling; they've won two straight road contests, first at Georgia Tech by 15 and then at Boston College by 22.
The Maryland comparisons continue. They're introducing a new coach, for one, but more strangely: like Maryland, their season started anew in the tenth game of the year, when star big man Reggie Johnson returned from injury. (Even more weirdly, they got another contributor back in the eleventh game, again just like Maryland.) Johnson, a space-eater of the nth degree who would be a fearsome matchup with someone like Shaquille Cleare, hasn't yet worked his way back to form; his averages of 10 points and 7 boards are impressive, but still below what he was putting up last year. He's been a big factor, but he's yet to have a truly dominant performance in his nine games since coming back.
Still, he's a huge piece for Miami and gives them one of the ACC's most underrated front courts. Johnson, a 6-10, 285-pound behemoth in the paint, is well-known for his ability to terrorize smaller post players, but there's also 6-11 junior Kenny Kadji, a transfer from Florida, who has taken a huge step up and proven himself in Johnson's absence. He's averaging 12 points and 6 boards a game, and those numbers haven't gone down since Johnson's return; in fact, they've gone up. Kadji dropped 21 against Georgia Tech, and 20 against N.C. State before that. (Strangest thing about Kadji: he's made 13 threes this year, shooting 43% from outside. No, really. He's not just a regular big man.)
The good news is that they don't go much deeper than that in the post - actually, they don't go deeper than that at all, but whatever - so if Johnson can be tired out or forced into foul trouble (he's wont to do both) things should get easier. That'll be critical; Johnson and Kadji is a scary combination on the inside, with a lot of size and a lot of strength. Maryland's bigs, for all of their offensive improvement, have been average defensively all season. Now going up against two talented guys who possess the size advantage, there's potential for some serious damage. I'd feel a lot better if Alex Len was playing up to old Alex Len standards.
The funny thing about it is that Miami was always supposed to be a guard-oriented team. There's a ton of depth 1-3 in Coral Gables, and some talent, too: Durand Scott is a former four-star out of New York, DeQuan Jones a former five-star from Georgia, Malcolm Grant transferred from Villanova, and guys like Rion Brown and Garrius Adams were top-150 types in their own right.
It hasn't really worked out that way, of course. Grant and Scott have been the two best guards on the team and both have gobs of talent, but they also remind of poor man versions of Terrell Stoglin: both like to shoot and neither are true point guards, which is problematic. Of course, neither possesses Stoglin's fantastic scoring ability, and both have seen drops in points per game and FG% from last year. They're good, but not fantastic and not as good as they should be.
Miami's also looked to some young-uns, with true freshman Shane Larkin providing major minutes at point guard and Rion Brown still an option as a quick scoring option. (Brown, if you're wondering, hasn't really capitalized on that absurd shooting performance against Maryland last year; he's a bit piece at most.) But DeQuan Jones continues to be a flop of epic, greater-than-Mike-Jones proportions: he's averaging fewer than 15 minutes a game this year, and while he's been more efficient and productive than he has in the past, that's not saying much; he's still only putting in 7 points a game.
Strange thing is, even with the frontcourt being better than the backcourt (at least at the top) they still lean quite heavily on the outside; nearly a full third of their points have come from three-pointers, second in the ACC behind only Boston College. Though that number's gone down since the return of Johnson it's still higher than it should be; they're sixth in the ACC in that regard since the conference slate has begun, and that can perhaps largely be attributed to a six percentage-point drop in 3-pt shooting percentage. (Part of that, for what it's worth, has to do with Grant's poor form; he's hitting only 29% of his threes over the past seven games.)
Still, they have one of the highest eFG% rates in the conference, hovering around 50%, and that number has gone up since Johnson's return, indicating that they're looking inside more and getting more and more easy looks. That does mean they're looking to the bigs, yes, but it also means that they're getting penetration from their guards, especially Scott - against BC, he took 14 shots, and only one of those was a trey.
And although neither Grant nor Scott are true point guards, both are good at holding onto the ball; only Virginia and North Carolina have turned the ball at a slower rate than the Canes. Surprisingly, they're one of the worst teams in the conference in terms of offensive rebounding, even after the return of Johnson, and don't get too many second chances.
Miami's offense is quite balanced, but it's not nearly as good as it should be with the tools they have available. Grant is streaky and has been struggling of late, leaving the team to rely pretty heavily on Kadji and the interior. Kadji has definitely answered that call, and after watching Mason Plumlee destroy Maryland's interior a few days ago, I'm sure he and Jim Larranagga are licking their lips at this matchup. Kadji isn't Plumlee, though, and Miami's shooters aren't Duke's. It's still a gamble - do you try to make Kadji beat you on the inside (he can) or Grant and Scott on the outside (they can, too)? - but much less scary than the Duke game was. Maryland is improving defensively every game, but this should be a bellwether game.
Defensively, they're again a bit tough to pin; they're certainly not bad, but I'm not sure they're particularly good there, either. Their defensive eFG% is among the best in the conference since the ACC slate has begun - tied with Virginia Tech for #3 - but they've forced turnovers at a lower rate than even Maryland in ACC play. (And Maryland never forces turnovers.) Their rebounding has improved greatly since the return of Johnson, as you'd expect, but is still not up to snuff, especially when one of either Johnson or Kadji has to take a seat.
Perhaps the area most able to be exploited is their three-point shooting defense, where Miami is 10th in the ACC at about 35%. We know Maryland is far from a team of snipers, but Terrell Stoglin and Sean Mosley can both get hot from outside and punish a team.
Miami is not a bad team - in fact, they're actually a pretty good one. If their guards were performing a little bit better, they'd probably be considered in competition with N.C. State as one of the Tier 2 (or 3, depending on how you view Virginia) teams in the ACC. As it stands, though, they're still trying to figure out just how good they can be, as is Maryland.
I look at this game much like I did the games against Temple and N.C. State - they're winnable, yes, but Maryland is still too young and has too many holes in their rosters to expect a victory. If they get it, then the conversation gets really interesting.