With Maryland's 2013-2014 college basketball season set to tipoff on Friday against the University of Connecticut, most Terps fans have their minds set on one goal; returning to the NCAA tournament. And that is a goal head coach Mark Turgeon believes his team can achieve this season, his third at Maryland. But that hype goes beyond Maryland's locker room. Several analysts and writers expect Maryland to once again be part of the big dance in 2014, carried by the strong play of juniors Dez Wells and Nick Faust and sophomore Jake Layman.
Outside Expectations & Impressions
When Mark Turgeon took over for Gary Williams in 2011, he was immediately faced with two daunting challenges; replacing a legendary coach who had been coaching there for 22 seasons and trying to rebuild a program that had slipped back towards the mediocrity middle of the ACC. In hindsight, most of us couldn't have known or predicted that every player that was on Maryland's roster when Turgeon took over in 2011 would be gone just two seasons later. Some of those players graduated, some left to pursue other careers and activities, and some transferred. Turgeon has essentially rebuilt this team from the ground up, bringing a lot of talented players to College Park who are capable of bringing the program back to the elite level of basketball that was so common in College Park from the late 90s through the early 2000s.
In what will be Maryland's final season as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Terps are being viewed as a talented team, but one that falls into a second tier within the conference behind Duke, Syracuse, UNC and Virginia. Many, including the ACC media members, believe Maryland will finish around 7th in the conference, citing a few unanswered questions that still remain for the Terps: how will they replace the production of former center Alex Len; can they cut down on turnovers and resolve the inconsistent point guard play that haunted the team last season; and can Roddy Peters step in and stabilize the point guard position?
The Vegas odds makers view Maryland as a 200/1 favorite to win the NCAA title this season and give the Terps a 25/1 shot to win the Atlantic Coast Conference. Some preseason NCAA brackets are leaving Maryland out of the dance at this point, while others have them in. So what should we expect from Maryland this season? We should expect a more mature team, some new, talented faces that will contribute immediately, and one that can hopefully build off the 25 wins from last year.
"It is a different feel. My first year was my first year. Last year, we had a lot of new players. This year we have veterans" head coach Mark turgeon said back on October 8th. " We have just one senior, but it seems like a veteran team."
Building off Last Year & Making up for Lost Production
Maryland needs to show that they're capable of improving on their turnovers from last year and that they can make up for the loss of Alex Len's defense in the paint and production in both scoring and rebounding. Last season, Maryland finished with a 22.2% turnover rate, which was good for 292nd in D1, according to kenpom.com. That number has to improve this season if Maryland is going to be successful. While we don't yet know how freshman Roddy Peters will perform this season, we do know that Dez Wells, who will be sharing point guard duties until Seth Allen returns from a fractured foot, turned the ball over on 23.8% of his possessions last year. Getting that number down this season is one of the keys that will determine how successful Maryland will be as a team.
"I just want everybody to be their best, play as hard as they can and be as efficient as they can when on the court" Wells said during Maryland's media day.
Despite those numerous turnovers, the Terps were able to win 25 games last year, thanks in part to their play on defense, which ranked 12th in defensive eFG% (Don't know what that is? Don't feel bad. I didn't either until recently. Read more about it and what it means here). With Alex Len now in the NBA, Maryland needs to show they have players capable of making up for his lost production not just on defense, but on the glass. Len had an offensive rebounding percentage of 13.2% last year, the second highest percentage in the ACC, as well as a defensive rebounding percentage of 19.3%. Len also had the team's second highest eFG% last year at 53.5 (Dez was tops on the team with a 55.8 eFG%). So can Maryland make up for that lost production? That is the second biggest question facing this year's team. Maryland also lost the production of senior James Padgett (graduation), Logan Aronhalt and Pe'Shon Howard, who transferred to USC for his senior season. But they're replacing those players with Evan Smotrycz, Roddy Peters, Jonathan Graham and Damonte Dodd. No one person is going to make up for the loss of Len, but Smotrycz, along with Charles Mitchell, Shaq Cleare and Damonte Dodd might be able to account for a large portion of Len's former production. Sophomore Jake Layman should also be able to help in that category, as he was second on the team in offensive rebounding percentage at 5.6% last year. But don't look past two additional players who could help Maryland on the offensive glass; Nick Faust (3.8%) and Dez Wells (3.7%) were third and forth on the team, respectively, in OR% last season. Faust improved his OR% by 0.4 points between his freshman and sophomore years while Wells' percentage dropped 1.9 percentage points from the 5.7% he achieved during his freshman year at Xaivier, mostly because he didn't need to rebound as much last year. With Wells at the point and continued improvement from Nick, Maryland has a number of options to make up for the loss of Len's production on the glass.
Maryland has the ability to improve this season, despite the players and production they lost. The easiest way to do that is simply by reducing their number of turnovers and ensuring that the lost production from Alex Len is covered by a number of different players. If Maryland can do that, they should be dancing in March. But if they're getting out-rebounded and turn the ball over at a high rate, they're going to be on the bubble again and will really struggle against some of the ACC's elite teams.
Lineup and Rotation
When Maryland played against Catholic last week, they featured a starting lineup of Shaquille Cleare (6'9"), Evan Smotrycz (6'9"), Jake Layman (6'8"), Nick Faust (6'6") and Dez Wells (6'5"). I'd expect Mark Turgeon to keep a very similar starting lineup going until Seth Allen returns from injury. But even then, don't expect Allen to jump in immediately and reclaim his starting point guard spot. Since Allen will have last played a few months prior, Mark Turgeon will likely ease him back into the flow of things.
The only position where I could potentially see a starting lineup change would be at center between Charles Mitchell and Shaq Cleare. Mark Turgeon has said that Cleare was much improved on defense, which is presumably why he got the starting nod over Mitchell initially. But if Shaq wants to remain as the starter, he's going to need to improve his offensive production. Mitchell has shown a willingness to put up shots, as well as a great ability to secure rebounds, both of which could push Shaq out of his starting role. Additionally, If Roddy Peters begins to really come into his own, he could potentially start at the one, but who among those five would you replace Peters with? I suppose that's a good problem for Turgeon to be having, for once.
As far as a rotation, Mark Turgeon mentioned during his post game presser following the Catholic win that he expects to have a 7-8 person rotation this season. That was prior to Jonathan Graham being granted a waiver by the NCAA that will allow him to play immediately, but even with Graham eligible, Turgeon will probably maintain a smaller rotation this season. Roddy Peters, Charles Mitchell, Damonte Dodd and Jonathan Graham will likely be the players that come off the bench for Maryland.
ACC Swan Song
I've always loved Maryland basketball. It was what first pulled me towards the University of Maryland. And part of that was the ACC I'll always remember; the nine team, round robin league play that featured some of my favorite games as a fan. But with the addition Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech, the ACC just hasn't been the ACC since 2004, when Maryland won the conference tournament in Greensboro. But with the addition of Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pitt this season, despite it's size, the ACC once again feels like a basketball conference and while I still believe the move to the B1G was the right one for Maryland, it is very weird to think that this will be the last time Maryland plays Duke, UNC, NC State, Georgia Tech, Clemson, Wake Forest, Florida State, and Virginia for the foreseeable future (except maybe in the B1G-ACC challenge). The fact that this move is actually happening didn't really hit me until now, when basketball season tips off, because to me the ACC is and always will be about basketball. Regardless of the Carolina refs, Tobacco Road bias, and being the redheaded stepchild of the conference, the ACC is all I've ever known and I'd be lying if I didn't say I'd miss it.
After watching this team, my initial impression is that they're an NCAA tournament team. Are they a national title contender? Probably not. Could they win the ACC? It is possible, but probably not likely. Mark Turgeon is positioning his team to be not only good this year, but into the future as well. He understands that Maryland's fans are expecting a return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010. But he also knows that reaching the tournament isn't good enough, either. Maryland fans want to achieve the success they had during their national title run, when not making the Sweet 16 meant it was a bad year. Turgeon is taken the time and any avenue possible to bring a lot of talented players to College Park for the long haul.
As a result and thanks to new faces and better experience, Maryland should win about the same number of games as last season, but they'll achieve more regular season success that will propel them into the NCAA tournament. This team is better than the one we saw last year, but they're going to have to demonstrate that on the court beginning Friday evening.