Alex Len's first career double-double and a game-high 25 points from Terrell Stoglin weren't enough for the Maryland Terrapins to overcome a 20-10 performance from C.J. Leslie and the N.C. State Wolfpack, as Maryland fell in their ACC opener 79-74.
I feel like fans are probably tired of hearing this after we got so much of it last year, but I'll say it anyway: I don't feel bad about this loss. Both Vegas and statistical analysis, like KenPom, had the Terrapins losing by much more than five. I certainly was expecting worse. But Maryland showed a lot of potential today, more or less sticking with a foe with more top-to-bottom talent and experience in a hostile venue. Had a few more bounces gone their way - or had they tidied up one or two things, which we'll get to in time - it wasn't out of the question for them to have come away with a victory.
The first half was a pretty evenly-matched affair, with the scored tied a few minutes before the break at 30-30. A few missed free throws aided a 6-0 N.C. State run to close out the half, and made a three-pointer on their first possession out of the break, pushing their lead to nine. But Maryland would fight back to bring the lead as low as three. The lead would grow as large as 14 later in the game, but a 9-0 Maryland run did make things interesting late. A 10-12 performance from the stripe in the final minute guaranteed an N.C. State victory.
To begin with, Maryland outperformed what I was expecting. I had thought all the way that this was going to be a double-digit loss, but to their credit the Terrapins never really let it get out of hand, and when it looked like it was going to, they fought back, which is always an encouraging sign. Again, I really think they had a shot at winning this one - and instead of that depressing me, I actually find it promising. Where we're at right now with this team is finding out how good they really are, or, more aptly, have the potential to be. And I have to be honest: "capable of beating [what I consider] the third-most talented team in the ACC on their own floor" is a pretty hopeful ceiling. If they start giving away games on a consistent basis then I'll have to reconsider, but right now I find it difficult to be anything but cautiously optimistic about the future.
We'll start off with the good: Maryland had one of their better offensive performances of the season, especially against a good opponent. The Notre Dame and Colorado wins were probably better offensive games, but those were on neutral courts against less-talented squads. Tonight was hardly flawless in terms of execution - there was still too much reliance upon Terrell Stoglin and a three-minute or so scoreless streak - but I did see a lot of positives. With a few rare exceptions, the offense ran sets much more consistently than they have in the past, and was usually able to match State blow-for-blow in the half-court.
One of the keys for tonight was always going to be hitting open shots, and Maryland largely did that. This is a team that, against high-major competition, shot about 41% from the field and 37% from three; tonight, it was 43% and 45%. The improvement from the field is negligible, but we're seeing this group start to hit their threes with greater consistency, even Mychal Parker and Nick Faust. And they did this without a lot of transition points, which was dictated by State mostly holding onto the ball.
Speaking of Parker: I feel like this was a real lights-come-on game for him. Granted, I've said that about three or four times this year, but these types of performances have never really come against high-majors for him. He didn't get a lot of playing time, but when he did he was active on both ends, didn't look lost with or without the ball, actually made several big plays, used his athleticism to his advantage, and made all of his shots. Even his free throws. I can't really think of anything to fault him on.
I don't think Parker will ever be a huge player to this team, certainly not this year and particularly not in the way Mark Turgeon wants them to play. (Jake Layman strikes me as a very different player for some reason.) But Parker came up big several times, and his athleticism can be a major tool, as we saw with his absurd put-back dunk. He didn't do much different tonight, but he did it better, and that's progress.
And while we're on individuals, two more stood out: Len and Sean Mosley. Let's start with the Ukrainian. He got some mixed reviews, but I think it was a pretty solid performance from him all around. Consider, for a moment, the mitigating factors: this was his first collegiate game against a high-major team; it was his first ACC game; it was his first game on the road; and it came against probably the third-best frontcourt in the conference. It was a pretty big ask, and he answered it with his first career double-double.
Make no mistake, he still needs significant development. His conditioning needs to improve, for one; he got beaten down the floor multiple times by DeShawn Painter, and those buckets proved to be a bit of a turning point. But given that he played 31 minutes, I find it difficult to fault him too heavily on this mark. I was more worried about where he is mentally; he seemed to be jittery at times, which I guess is expected from his first ACC road game, and rushed on many occasions when he didn't need to. His awareness is still developing - he needs to learn not to get caught out on the perimeter so much, in particular - and he tends to disappear for spells, rarely demanding the ball in the post or getting caught outside the action. He basically has no post moves when he gets the ball down low, which makes it difficult to consistently rely upon him in the half-court.
And despite all that, he still dropped a double-double on two potential All-ACC post players as a freshman with all of those mitigating factors we discussed. That's pretty major. His potential is mind-blowing, and even just where he is physically right now changes games. As he develops the rest of his game - and I have no doubt that he will, given that all but the most elite freshman struggle in the areas he's struggling in right now - he'll become a serious force.
Switching gears to Mosley: I know it's easy to hate on him, but he was pretty fantastic tonight, as he was against Cornell. He came up with any number of huge plays all game long, on both ends of the floor. If you can believe it, I think Mosley is Maryland's only chance at a real secondary scoring option on the perimeter this year. They need to look to involve him in the offensive more often, so he doesn't disappear like he's done many times this season. Likewise, he needs to be more aggressive about finding his own shot. With Pe'Shon Howard dialed into being a full-time distributor and Nick Faust ... uh, not being "there" yet, they'll need his buckets every night.
As for what went wrong, well, there are dozens of things in games like this. I have a few big culprits: free throw shooting, defense, and lack of a consistent secondary scoring option. Let's start with the easiest one, which is of course free throw shooting. The final stats on this one: Maryland shot 13-21, N.C. State shot 21-24. Maryland missed eight and State missed three; that is, if you're counting at home, a five-point difference. Switch those two, and you have a drastically different game. I hate to harp on free throw shooting because we know it's not going to improve anytime soon - I imagine there'll have to be significant roster turnover to get there - but it's impossible to ignore.
The other two problems are known to us as well, but more fixable. The first was poor defense, especially in the second half. State does have one of the best one-through-five scoring lineups in the conference, but many of the problems here were Maryland-caused. There were a lot of defensive miscommunications and plays where court awareness seemed lacking - things like biting on biting on pumpfakes from a 33% three-point shooter from 23 feet out. There was a period where the two teams were simply trading blows basket for basket, and Maryland could just never come up with a big stop when doing so could've been a huge momentum turn.
The good news is that no other team quite has a player like Scott Wood, who never did anything except catch-and-shoot but still tortured Maryland. A one-dimensional player like that should be easy to lock down, but the Terrapins never really were able to bother him and that was a big reason for the loss.
The final point: Maryland never had a huge scoreless streak and was pretty good offensively, but it's painfully evident that they'd be much better with someone who could truly share the load with Stoglin. Len might get there but right now he basically has no post moves and is a pure garbage man; Faust might develop, too, but he's far from consistent. When Stoglin has to sit down with foul trouble (he had two first-half fouls tonight) it's a real drag on the offense. Whenever he isn't on the floor, commentators always go "Where do the points come from?" and as annoying as it is, it's not a terrible question. This was still a problem tonight even when he was on the floor: as effective as he usually is, you do see him go one-on-five with everyone else standing around. When it doesn't work, it snowballs, as we saw with a few three-minute scoreless stretches that forced Mark Turgeon to call a timeout and regroup the offense.
There were other problems, particularly turnovers and a, er, tepid performance from the bench players. But I thought in most areas tonight, Maryland was good enough to win; just not from the stripe or for a few stretches defensively. (For those who balk at 15 turnovers: the higher-than-usual tempo means that the TO% was right in line with what Maryland's been averaging on the season. And the Iona loss is the only one caused significantly by turnovers.)
I'm okay with the way things turned out tonight. While a win would've been nice, it was probably a bit much to expect this team to win a road game against a top-middle tier ACC team. A loss here doesn't really hurt, and the performance did nothing to convince me that seven or eight ACC wins were an impossibility for this team. There's a lot to correct, to be sure, but also quite a bit to build on, especially individually.
Maryland, which is now 10-4, will stand a good chance at being 12-4 and 2-1 in the ACC by the end of the week. Their next two games are both home contests against Wake Forest and Georgia Tech. While both of those two proved themselves to be more formidable than expected - Wake beat Virginia Tech and GT nearly defeated Duke at home - they're still opponents with comparable talent level and experience to Maryland, which means the Terrapins could easily win both. So things aren't all bad here.
(Before I leave, though, a quick note: anyone else notice that State went basically seven-deep? It's a strange sensation to see Maryland be deeper than teams now.)