Mark Zerof-US PRESSWIRE
What: Maryland and Kentucky kick off the year in a nationally-televised, highly-anticipated matchup
When and Where: 8:30 in the Barclays Center, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Where to Watch: ESPN. Dave O'Brien and Dick Vitale on the call. Not exactly my favorite pairing.
Line: No odds for early games, but ... Kentucky -4.5 sound about right? See, this is easy.
Notes / Storylines
The arrival? It was in 1993 that Gary Williams beat Georgetown on a neutral floor in a season-opener, toppling one of the great trendy powerhouses of that era and, importantly, announcing that Maryland basketball was once again a nationally relevant program. Mark Turgeon has that same opportunity today. Beating Kentucky - the trendiest of trendy programs, what some consider to be the next great dynasty of college basketball - would put Maryland on the national map and be massive for the future of the program. It'd also let everyone know that Maryland is back.
Hello Brooklyn. Aside from the natural coolness of playing a game in Brooklyn at the Barclays Center, there's a practical issue here, too. Maryland's expanding their map, reinvolving the large numbers of Terp fans, alums, and potential fans in the NYC area. And, of course, it's long past time to begin recruiting New York again, perhaps starting with BK native and five-star two-guard Isaiah Whitehead, who had Maryland in his final ten schools earlier in the week. Entering the local consciousness can only be a good thing.
Injuries? (And not Maryland's!) Yes, there's a chance Kentucky will be without two of their top three guards, with Julius Mays recovering from a minor knee injury and Ryan Harrow battling flu-like symptoms. Kentucky already has minimal depth, especially at guard. Losing their starter at point guard in Harrow and the guy who'd likely fill in for him would be near-devastating. But Calipari hopes they'll be able to play, and I expect they will. Still, expect them to be at less than 100%, which would make things easier on Pe`Shon Howard and Seth Allen. The logical thing to do for Kentucky would be to push Archie Goodwin to the point, Kyle Wiltjer to a spot on the wing, and Willie Cauley-Stein next to Nerlens Noel, going with a pretty huge lineup. But there would be literally no depth past that group of five: a rag-tag bunch of reserves in Twany Beckham, Jon Hood, and Jarrod Polson would be next in line. Turgeon might not be about a fast pace, but he'd be looking to run 'em out of the gym at that point.
Showcase. This is not only a chance for Maryland to reach a northeastern fanbase and put themselves on the national map; it's a shot for the Terrapins' burgeoning stars to get noticed, too. Against a Kentucky team with all kinds of hype in a game that virtually every scout and anyone with a passing interest in college basketball is going to watch ... yeah, it's quite the platform. To this point, here's a somewhat-interesting, mostly-Kentucky-themed piece from Zags on what scouts are saying about this game. It's mostly about UK guys, as you might expect, but note that some seem to like Len, Wells, and Faust. Well, "liking" them can move into pretty serious status if they turn in a strong performance tonight.
Rivalry? Neither Kentucky nor Maryland consider the other a rival by any stretch. But Mark Turgeon and John Calipari are old friends, and are already meeting for their second time: first in a battle for the Harrison Twins, and now on the court. If Maryland's rise is quite as stratospheric as fans hope, these two could end up meeting even more, both on the court and off it. Get used to the sight of them.
The Opponent (An Overview)
Kentucky's the same Kentucky they've been for the past four years, which is to say they're young, inexperienced, and completely new and different. The only holdover from last year's title-winning team is Kyle Wiltjer, a 6-10 sophomore who'll man the 4 next to Nerlens Noel. Wiltjer has added some strength, but he's still primarily a face-up four whose biggest asset is being able to stretch the floor - he shot 43% from three-point range last season. Outside of Wiltjer, though, Kentucky returns a whopping 10 field goal attempts from last season's team, so they are indeed starting anew.
As per usual, Calipari has a lot of talented youngsters, with three five-stars headlining the Wildcats' newcomers. Nerlens Noel's offensive game is somewhat limited, but he's a long and lanky shot-blocking machine. (As a I sidenote: I really, really hope Noel and Wells meet at the rim at least once.) Alex Poythress isn't a particularly polished prospect, either, but he's an athletic monster with an NBA-ready body at small forward. And then there's Archie Goodwin, probably the team's best scorer and a well-rounded, polished prospect at the 2-guard.
But there's little past that. Our old friend Harrow is the only real point guard on the roster, and as his time at N.C. State should've told you, he's not exactly befitting a program with national title hopes. He's joined by Mays in the backcourt, an N.C. State transplant of his own, by way of Wright State. Then there's Willie Cauley-Stein, a 7-0 freshman whom some have talked up in recent days but was less highly-regarded than Shaquille Cleare coming out of high school. And ... that's pretty much it. This team goes seven-deep and has little in the way of quality depth, less in experience, and arguably not that much in ready-to-score offensive options.
None of this is to belittle Kentucky, given that Wiltjer's a player and there's as much raw, unbridled talent on this roster as any in the country, except maybe UCLA. They're still a massive challenged and are probably rightfully favored. But like most Kentucky teams they're a little overrated early in the year, before Calipari's had a chance to work some of his magic, and they certainly aren't last year's Wildcats.
Expected Starting Fives:
|Pe`Shon Howard (Jr., 6-2)||Ryan Harrow (So., 6-1)|
|Nick Faust (So., 6-6)||Archie Goodwin (Fr., 6-6)|
|Dezmine Wells (So., 6-5)||Alex Poythress (Fr., 6-8)|
|James Padgett (Sr., 6-8)||Kyle Wiltjer (So., 6-10)|
|Alex Len (So., 7-1)||Nerlens Noel (Fr., 6-10)|
The questions for Maryland: does Howard start instead over Seth Allen, and does Padgett start over Charles Mitchell? I'm guessing both are yes, but wouldn't be surprised to see either turn the other way. And this is a team that matches up very well with Kentucky as is, with Howard a suitable check for Harrow and Wells an interesting foil for Poythress, too. (Faust could switch off and guard the three, as well, but my gut says Wells will be the first choice.) The only concern I can see is Wiltjer being a breakout star and tearing up Padgett in the face-up game ala Mike Scott. Other than that, though, well-balanced set of matchups.
Matchup to Watch: I used this in the game vitals because I forgot I use it in the previews, too, but a little redundancy never hurt anyone. Anyway, there's one obvious one-v-one that's extraordinarily intriguing: Alex Len vs. Nerlens Noel. Both lengthy, athletic potential lotto picks, both with some uncertainty about how they'll deal with a player so like them. If Maryland's going to win, they need Len to win his own personal battle with Noel.
...don't exist, since neither team's actually played a game yet. Don't you love that new season smell?
Prediction: I am a naturally sober blogger, which means I try not to get carried away even when things seem good (except occasionally ironically; see: State, N.C.). But I have a weirdly good vibe about this game. I'm largely unimpressed with Kentucky's roster by Calipari's usual standards, and there's at the very least the potential for Maryland's to be at least as good if not even better. And we know the Terrapins are more experienced. If Harrow or Mays can't go, or even if they're at less than full capacity, it's not unrealistic to think Maryland has a great shot here.
It's a toss-up of a game, really. That doesn't mean it'll be close, but that means calling it one way right here and now is an exceedingly difficult task. But I'll assume that Kentucky's missing at least one guard, and if they are it's not tough to see Maryland capitalizing on that and grinding out a close win. I'll be the optimist and say Maryland by a couple of baskets.