CHAPEL HILL, NC - FEBRUARY 11: Coach Tony Bennett of the Virginia Cavaliers watches his team against the North Carolina Tar Heels during play at the Dean Smith Center on February 11, 2012 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. North Carolina won 70-52. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
You know what sucks? Quick turnarounds. Really, ACC, a day of rest before a road game? Ridiculous. Child please.
That point aside, Maryland's trip to Virginia tomorrow could still be one of the most interesting matchups of the season, with the Terrapins hitting their stride on Thursday and a still-top-25 Virginia team having just lost two straight. I hate talking about the bubble when there's no guarantee that Maryland will even finish above .500, but if they can snag this one, the bubble might just become a possibility.
Before I get started, though, a quick side note: how strange is it that this year's version of Duke is arguably only my fourth most-hated team in the conference? UNC takes the cake, with N.C. State and, yeah, Virginia right behind them. I hate the packline. I hate the slow tempo. At least Duke plays entertaining basketball. You can go ahead and skewer me now.
Anyway, much credit to Tony Bennett, as much as I dislike his negative and boring tactics. The guy walked into a tough situation three years ago that didn't get much better after losing Sylvan Landesburg, but has put together a very strong bunch in his third year in Charlottesville. No telling if they can maintain it going forward - Mike Scott is a huge part of their success - but if at the start of the year you had Virginia as the #22 team in the country, most people thought you were crazy.
After starting out 6-3 in the ACC, though, the Hoos have fallen a bit back to earth, dropping their last two contests to UNC (understandable) and Clemson (less understandable). Looking through UVA's schedule, I'm fairly confident in saying that this will be a battle: while UVA will rightfully be favored by a fair amount, I have trouble thinking Maryland will lose in a blowout to a team that's already lost to both Clemson and Virginia Tech. That isn't to say that Virginia isn't good - they are - only that, with the right approach, a "worse" team can keep these games closer than they should be or downright win them.
As far as individuals go, the only name you really need to know is Mike Scott. One of the most efficient players in the country, the 6-8 fifth-year senior is averaging 17 points and 8 boards per game on nearly 60% shooting from the floor. He's sort of like a middle-class Thomas Robinson: he possesses a very well-rounded game, capable of taking his man in the post or facing up, which he loves to do, and has a lot of skill and athleticism. Likewise, he's a fantastic rebounder and above-average defender. I doubt he has much of an NBA career ahead of him - he'll be 24 by the time the draft rolls around - but he's a great collegiate player.
It'll be fascinating to see how Maryland tries to counter him. UVA is inconsistent from outside but they have some guys who can bomb, so Maryland may take the Duke Strategy and try to go one-on-one with him, ala Mason Plumlee. Ashton Pankey is the best matchup in terms of body type and athleticism - they're mirror images of each other - but Scott is a lot more aggressive and I fear Pankey won't be able to do anything to stop him. I'd consider Alex Len if I had my druthers, but Len is foul-prone. This is the game's biggest mismatch, and one of the biggest of the season.
Actually, Virginia is a lot like Maryland in a sense: they have one great player, and everyone else is okay but far from a focal point. They all fill their roles. Joe Harris is the biggest of them: the sophomore swingman is a lethal shooter, usually upwards of 40%, but has an injured hand that has seriously bothered him recently. In his last two games, Harris has combined for only 10 points on 2-9 shooting from three, a bad showing for the team's second-leading scorer. In fact, Harris' injury has a lot to do with UVA's recent struggles. The good news for Maryland: he won't be fully healthy for another several weeks. That really hurts the Hoos, as they need Harris' shooting to keep defenses honest against Scott.
As you might expect, most of Virginia's role players are perimeter guys. There's Sammy Zeglinski, a 6-1 senior who's been around forever; Jontel Evans, a 5-11 junior hitting from three at 44%; and Malcolm Brogdon, a talented freshman swingman. None average more than 8ppg, but Zeglinski is capable of skewering a lazy defense and Evans has played well as the team's primary point guard. No doubt about it, this is an intensely guard-oriented team, as I'd argue that past Scott their next four largest contributors are all perimeter players.
As far as ancillary bigs go, they used to rely a bit on Assane Sene, but he's been out for several weeks now and won't return until the end of the regular season. Past that, there are actually two guys who used to be fringe Maryland targets: Akil Mitchell, a 6-8 pogo stick, and Darion Atkins, a 6-8 freshman. When Scott's on the bench, Maryland will almost certainly have the advantage on the interior, and the focus should be on getting him to sit as much as possible, either through foul trouble or pace. Mitchell is okay, but he's no better than, say, Ashton Pankey and probably a bit worse than Alex Len and James Padgett.
Like almost all guard-oriented, unathletic teams, Virginia plays a brand of basketball I find personally disasteful, but y'know, whatever. For one, it's absolutely glacial: they're the third-slowest team in the country in terms of tempo, with Wisconsin as the only slower high-major team. They've hit 70 possessions only once this season, against Longwood; Maryland's done it eight times. They rarely run in transition, and will milk the shot clock in the half court. Predictably, they pride themselves on offensive execution, namely not turning the ball and getting high-percentage looks. They'll always get into a set and they'll be more careful than most with the ball. (At least, when the offense is being run correctly.)
At least they're not a total stereotype: they can't shoot from outside very well. As a team they hit only 33% from deep, which is ninth in the conference and actually worse than Maryland. Harris' ability usually counteracted that, but with him struggling the Cavs don't really have another sniper to turn to. This is one of the reasons they do rely so heavily on Scott - by the way, the only player used more than Scott in the ACC is, you guessed it, Terrell Stoglin.
Which, I suppose, is as good a segue as any other: it'll be interesting to see how Mr. Stoglin does against Virginia's vaunted defense, given how he torched the poor man's version (that is, Notre Dame) earlier in the year. In fact, the ND game was arguably Stoglin's best performance of the season, and there are a lot of similarities between the Irish and the Cavs. For one, both utilize some form of the packline. It's not very complex - just a variation of man-to-man - but with minimal pressure off the ball. The focus is on not allowing easy buckets or making mistakes, instead forcing the opposition to pass it around and (hopefully) make a mistake.
Of course, a player like Stoglin, who is so deadly one-on-one, invites that sort of challenge eagerly. I'm assuming Bennett will account for Stoglin in some way, but I doubt he'll abandon his style of defense entirely. I know Mark Turgeon has been adamant about playing a certain way, but feel like if Maryland tries to out-execute and/or out-halfcourt Virginia, they'll get burnt. Pushing the tempo and giving Stoglin a bit of freedom could yield greater results.
Really, Virginia's defense is very good. It's one of the best in the ACC, with an FSU-esque eFG% and one of the best defensive rebounding percentages in the nation. They're disciplined and efficient, and do just about everything pretty well. Again, this is gonna be a really intriguing game for me.
I honestly wouldn't be surprised to see Maryland win this game, probably on the back of Stoglin and good team defense. Nor would I be surprised to see Scott go all Plumlee on Maryland's front line and lead the Cavs to some 20-point win. The most likely scenario, though, is a close UVA win, in which Maryland fans complain about free throw shooting.
But if I could handpick any marquee win this year, it'd be over Virginia. C'mon, Turgeon. Win one for basketball aesthetics.