This is a post we do from time to time after games. It's modeled off a similar piece by Kevin Van Valkenburg formerly of the Baltimore Sun. Feel free to agree, disagree, or post your four things in the comments section below.
1. There is no such thing as a moral victory in sports. At least that's what we're told. I'm not sure if moral victories do exist, but if they do, what the Terps have done the past two games is as close to a moral victory as you can get.
On Wednesday, the Terps battled with a good Miami team to double overtime before eventually falling. Today, they gave the #6 team in the country, stacked with three sure-fire 1st round NBA picks all they could handle. At the end of the regular season when committees make their selections both of these games will show up as Ls on the resume. But for this team and its young players, the efforts they put out the last two games certainly mean something.
Let's take a short trip back to where we were at the start the season. I, personally, had no expectation of making the NCAA Tournament, little expectation of even making the NIT, and no confidence that we could hang tough with two top ten teams in Duke and North Carolina. We had eight scholarship players (at the time), one fourth-year senior, and had lost our best player to the NBA Draft.
It's easy to forget all that because the Terps have played pretty well. For the most part, they've beaten the teams they're supposed to beat, and they've taken the ACC's best down to the wire. Naturally, we, as fans, are disappointed when they lose any game. That disappointment is exacerbated when the loss is a very winnable game against a top 10 team. But let's take a moment to look at some positive here.
For young guys like Nick Faust and Alex Len, guys who will form the core of this team for the next two or three years, the experience of being in a dogfight is one they'll remember next year. They'll know what it's like to play in a big game that goes down to the wire. They'll know what it's like to play in front of a packed Comcast Center. And soon enough, because of these close, tough losses, they'll learn how to win these types of games.
Despite the massive talent differential and despite the inexperience, Mark Turgeon has his team fighting, scrapping, and clawing against the conference's best. Let's give the players and the coach some credit for that.
2. James Padgett and Ashton Pankey have been pleasant surprises this year but the Terps need reinforcements down low if they're going to going to beat a team like Duke and North Carolina in the future.
Today's game almost felt like the Duke game: Come out strong, get the crowd into it, play a more talented team close, and then wear down inside towards the end of the game. Against Duke, Mason Plumlee was the offender. Today it was Tyler Zeller and John "Classy" Henson (We're sticking with this name until he's out of the ACC.)
Now, both those guys are future pros, so there is no shame in them getting their 20 points a game. But to get out-rebounded and give the Tar Heels second and third chance opportunities in the game's dwindling minutes is pretty hard to swallow. Point in case comes with 2:39 left in the game and the Terps trailing 72-69. After Tyler Zeller missed a shot the Tarheels got three straight offensive rebounds before John "Classy" Henson made a jumper to push the lead to five. You simply can't have sequences like that at the end of close games against great teams.
Maybe Pankey and Padgett were gassed from having to cover Zeller and Henson all game. Or maybe they just need to box out better as Turgeon suggested in his post game comments. Regardless, Shaquille Cleare (and hopefully another big) can't come to College Park soon enough. And if John "Classy" Henson decides to return next season and tries to pull something like that in Comcast again, he'll have to answer this guy.
3. Alex Len has struggled in ACC play, but anyone who thought he was a "bust" or in over his head looks pretty silly after today's game.
Without Alex Len, the Terps lose by at least 15 today. In fact, I'm pretty sure it's a completely different game.
After the first few minutes when Tyler Zeller looked like he was single-handedly going to beat Maryland today, Turgeon made the switch to Len. Almost instantly, Zeller looked a little rattled. Instead of shooting over 6' 8 James Padgett, it was 7' 1 Len in his way. Paired with Berend Weijs, the two near 7 footers, disrupted North Carolina's inside game and made getting to the hoop significantly more difficult. Alex Len finished the game with four blocks.
Offensively, the Ukrainian big man was impressive as well. He scored 12 points on 5-8 shooting and did it in a variety of ways. He made layups, hit jump shots, and even displayed an impressive baby hook. Len also grabbed nine boards, good for best on the team.
Yes, Len is raw and yes, he's got a ways to go. But if we learned nothing else today it's that Alex Len can play against the ACC's best. Doing what he did against two future first round picks should serve as a much-needed confidence booster as well.
4. It often takes kids the bulk of their freshman season to hit their stride and really started feeling comfortable in their team's system. I'm not sure Nick Faust is quite there yet, but he took a big step forward today.
There was one play early on in the game that caught my attention. Faust got the ball off a screen, saw a small opening in the lane, whizzed past his defender and got fouled going up strong. It's the standard type of play you'd expect to see from a veteran with a good handle. But to see that kind of aggressiveness and confidence from a freshman playing against the #6 team in the country...It was impressive to say the least.
Say what you will about Faust but confidence is a trait he doesn't seem to lack. Speed, shiftiness and a handle are skills he's refined as well. He's great at getting to the rim and throughout the season, he's improved at finishing those plays. He also plays pretty good defense: so well, in fact, that Turgeon felt comfortable letting him guard Harrison Barnes for some time.
Like Alex Len, Faust needs some seasoning. But together, they make up two very good pieces to a Maryland program headed in the right direction.
After the game, when asked about the John Henson dunk, Turgeon had this to say:
"I didn't like the dunk. Coach knows that. But we're going to be good soon. The world goes round."
That quote, to me, seems to be as much a warning shot to other coaches around the league as it is a message to us fans. We're a little down right now, but we're fighting, and one day soon, we're going to be up there with conference's best. If there is one thing we can take away from today's game it is this: that day that Turgeon alludes to may be coming sooner than we originally thought.