Mark Turgeon's Maryland Terrapins open up the basketball season with a trip north to face defending-champion Kentucky in the Barclays Center. And guess what: it's only five days away.
Why It Matters: Because it's basketball. Because it's against Kentucky, and we don't like Kentucky. Because it's in Brooklyn, opening up the Barclays Center (kinda-sorta), opening up the college basketball season, and it's a national story. But most of all, because beating Kentucky in 2012 would be to Mark Turgeon as beating Georgetown in 1993 was to Gary Williams. The launchpad, the ascendancy, the announcement of the return of Maryland basketball.
When + Where: 8:30 on Friday, Nov. 9, at the Barclays Center, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Series History: 8-5 to Kentucky, but we got the one that really mattered. As an aside, here's a genuinely interesting history of every Maryland-Kentucky game to date, from a UK basketball history site. Apparently Julius Radice - "a heavy-set chap" - and Louis Berger were quite the showmen, no-look passin' and alley-oopin' in the '20s. And said Adolph Rupp back in the 50s:
"I'm going to see my calves tomorrow and I'm giving the boys a day off...I've seen enough of that tough, rugged, nasty Maryland defense and I figure the boys want to forget about it too."
Odds: Not posted, but I'd say Kentucky -11 or so is going to be likely.
At a Glance
Last Time Out: Kentucky played Northwood in their one and only exhibition game, winning easily 93-61. Archie Goodwin put up 22 points and Nerlens Noel 17, but I imagine that's not going to be a consistent thing; they'll rotate leading offensive options based on who's hot at any one point. Maryland's opener was less comfortable, beating IUP 73-61, but at least they discovered that Seth Allen's for real.
Lineups: Kentucky's line-up is almost certainly going to consist of Ryan Harrow, a 6-1 sophomore transfer from N.C. State; Archie Goodwin, a 6-6 freshman; Alex Poythress, a 6-8 pogo stick of a freshman small forward; Kyle Wiltjer, a 6-10 (generously) sophomore and the most experienced player on the roster; and Nerlens Noel, the 6-10 shot-blocking machine. First off the bench for UK will be Willy Cauley-Stein, a seven-foot freshman center, and Julius Mays, a former N.C. State benchwarmer who transferred to Wright State and then transferred again to Kentucky as a graduate student. Past that, it's walkons and benchwarmers, so any type of foul trouble - especially at guard - will be a big deal.
Assuming, no late-breaking, Dezmine Wells-related rulings from the NCAA, Maryland will start Nick Faust and Alex Len with certainty, and past that...uh? Before Friday I thought James Padgett and Pe`Shon Howard were locked on to start, too, but after the exhibition I'm not so sure. Seth Allen will be mighty tough to keep off the floor, and Charles Mitchell made a statement as well. Then there's Jake Layman, who started and struggled until working his way into the game in the second half, but who most importantly is Maryland's best matchup with Poythress, giving Nick Faust less to worry about defensively.
Wells makes this team so much better and the lineup that much easier to pick. Without him, even figuring out a starting five is going to be difficult. Based on the very little we know, Allen, Layman, and Mitchell look like the most complete options to finish out the starting five, but that's a lot of inexperience and different things are likely being shown in practice. The good news for Maryland is that they have infinitely more options when it comes to resting players, rotating lineups, and giving Kentucky different looks. Turgeon's calling card is his coaching ability, and a good way of proving it would be getting a handle on UK's five, his own team's strengths, and quickly figuring out the five that's best fit to counter them.
Interesting Matchup: Alex Len vs. Nerlens Noel. They're similar players, both giants with great athleticism - Len's a little taller, Noel's a little more athletic, but it evens out. They're both better defensively than offensively. Both are potential lottery picks next season, albeit Noel significantly more likely than Len. For Maryland to have much of a chance, you'd assume Len has to show up big, neutralizing and perhaps even outplaying Noel. That's a big ask for Len, who rarely asserts himself upon the game and generally makes his biggest impact as a help defender. Maryland's going to need more than that from their big Ukrainian.
Probably Wrong Conclusions After a Fleeting Glance: Kentucky's a more talented team almost without doubt, perhaps an all-around better team as well. But UK's teams under Calipari have something of a tendency to start slow. In his first year Miami (OH) took them to the wire and Sam Houston St. lost by only ten. Two years ago they were challenged by Washington and upset by UConn. Last year they gelled quickly but were still scared by Old Dominion, who lost by only ten in the fourth game of the year. This is probably their least-imposing roster over those three years, and certainly their thinnest. Kentucky's a beatable team, and probably a little bit overrated - at least at this point in the season.
But saying they are, generally speaking, beatable, does not Maryland will win or will even come close to winning. Looking at what we know, in fact, it doesn't seem very likely. The good news, though, is that we know very little: it's the first game of the year, so there are a dozen question marks on both sides. Will Noel be dominant? Is Harrow a reliable point guard? Can Maryland find a New Joe Smith? Does Alex Len take the next step? These are things we can only speculate at; there's little hard evidence pointing one way or the other. That means that, even if I'm not exactly confident about Maryland pulling an upset, it's within the realm of imagination without much of a stretch.
Without Wells, though, it'll be a very tall task. Maryland's roster is deeper than Kentucky's but doesn't have as much raw talent, and they don't yet have the experience to compensate for it. They'll be in it, but it's tough to expect much more. With Wells, its a different story, much closer in the talent gap and much farther apart in the experience one. If Wells isn't ruled eligible by tip-off, it'll be tough not to think what-if. Sadly, that's far out of Maryland's control.
Whichever way it turns out, the good news is that basketball is back.