Maryland Terrapins-Virginia Cavaliers Preview: Terps face test from streaking Cavs

The enemy. - USA TODAY Sports

Maryland returns to high-level opposition by hosting Virginia, which has won five of their last six, including a demolition of Clemson and an upset win over N.C. State. Wake Forest and VT they are not, but the Terps are finding their way themselves. With both teams needing wins, this is shaping up to be one of the more interesting contests of the season.

What: The Maryland Terrapins host border rivals and sneakily impressive Virginia Cavaliers, looking to build more momentum and snatch a semi-quality win.

Where + When: 1:00 tip at Comcast Center, College Park, Md.

Where to Watch: ACC Network*, so check your affiliates here. (Random affiliate o' the day: Green Bay, Wi.!) Locally, it's FOX-5 in DC and WNUV in Bawlmer. If you're an out-of-towner, ESPN3's your only option.

Lines: Vegas: Maryland -1.5 KenPom: Maryland by 1

Notes/Storylines

Winning streak. To paraphrase the great Lou Brown, "We won a game last week. Then we won one on Thursday - that's two in a row. We win one today, that's called a winning streak. It has happened before." Maryland's been up and down throughout the past month or so of the season, without any real momentum building up either way. They've won two in a row over their weakest competition yet, though, and that sets them up with a great chance to build some momentum heading down the back of the ACC stretch. Virginia at home is not only perhaps their best chance at a semi-quality win the rest of the year; it's also a shot to head into the Duke game at full steam, plus set themselves up for a mighty interesting final few weeks to the season. They'll need to win a lot of games there, though, and to even have a chance they'll probably need to win this one.

Gold rush. Maryland breaks out the gold unis (and presumably freely-distributed gold t-shirts) for this one. That honor is oft reserved for Duke, like it was last season. Which means one of two things: first, that they decided they weren't likely to beat Duke this year anyway and it wasn't worth it to waste a "Gold Rush" game on a probable loss; or secondly, and much more likely, that they have something super-duper-secrety-awesome cooked up for Duke in a few days' time. Either way, we'll get the (relatively) old-school look this afternoon.

Not really rivals, but I guess you're close enough. This isn't like the Duke non-rivalry, where the vitriol is mostly one-sided. Neither side can really be bothered about the other, for the most part, here. But we're still border rivals, technically, and both fanbases have a healthy distaste for the other. It's just that both have supposedly bigger fish to fry. Still, wins over UVA are just a little bit sweeter than they are against most.

Injuries. Virginia has them. Maryland doesn't. The Cavs will likely be without freshman big man Mike Tobey, who dropped 13 points on N.C. State in 20 minutes; he missed the Clemson game with mono and is out indefinitely. Darion Atkins has also been in and out of the lineup himself, having missed the past two games and five of the last six. That's quite a deterioration of their interior depth, especially because Tobey had seen his minutes increased to cover for Atkins' absence in the first place.

Oh, hi there Justin Anderson. So, this guy's reception will be interesting, no? I don't subscribe to the idea of being bitter at 18-year-olds, but even by the standards of people who do, I've never understood the bitterness toward Anderson. He committed to Gary. Gary left. He was respectful throughout the process, did nothing untoward toward Maryland's coaching staff or program. Unlike a certain someone else. But he'll still be booed every time he gets a touch.

The Opponent (An Overview)

Meet the New Florida State. Virginia is as bipolar a program as there is in the ACC these days: they started off the ACC schedule by beating UNC, before promptly dropping games to Wake Forest and Clemson. A few weeks later, they beat N.C. State by three at home (the last basket in that game, by the way, came at the 3:58 mark). They followed that up with a six-point loss at struggling Georgia Tech. And then followed that up with an absolute beatdown of Clemson in Charlottesville, a team they got spanked by in South Carolina just weeks earlier.

So what's up? Well, among other things Virginia is hugely inexperienced, right up there with Maryland, Wake Forest, and Boston College for the youngest in the conference. (Note that their odd losses have all come on the road, which is another young team hallmark.) Their style of play is based entirely on execution, with a minimization of natural talent, which means that days they're off they'll be really off. And recent injuries to Mike Tobey and Darion Atkins have diminished their interior quality and experience. But on their day, they can topple anyone (see: State) and take inferior teams to the cleaners (see: Clemson).

And yes, Tony Bennett is the embodiment of basketball evil, blah blah blah. I hate Bennett's basketball - and it's pretty damned heinous basketball, most days - as much as the next guy, but there's a begrudging respect for his pragmatism and results. He has Virginia looking like a bubble team right now, and maybe even better than a bubble team, in a year when I, and most others, thought they'd be sunk by the absence of Mike Scott.

They've adapted to the absence of Scott by becoming a more well-rounded offensive team, with Joe Harris, Akil Mitchell, and a host of freshmen stepping up. Harris is what makes them tick, though, and he's been especially dangerous of late, dropping 20 a game over the past three contests. He's a killer outside threat, smart with the ball, and can light up a defense - but more on him later.

Harris aside, this is still the same Virginia team you know and hate. They're the slowest team in the conference, with a crushing (and boring, but I suppose that's subjective) disciplined man-to-man defense and a slow-it-down offense built around execution and perimeter shooting. They largely prevent open looks from the outside defensively with solid rotations, and given their packline-inspired roots are difficult to break down. The best way to beat them is by either outrunning them (difficult to do, given that you have to control the game entirely to set the tempo) or by breaking them down in the halfcourt with incisive, patient execution. Yeah, not exactly Maryland's strong suit.

Offensively, the Cavs run as slow a tempo as you'll find in high-major basketball these days - the only teams with a slower tempo are Northern Kentucky, Idaho State, Denver, and Western Illinois. It's all about burning the clock, taking care of the ball, and getting a quality look - usually a jumper - late in the shot clock. They very rarely get to the line, take a lot of three-pointers, and rely heavily on offensive execution - probably more than they should, which is where a well-drilled defense can frustrate them. They also don't take care of the ball as well as you'd expect a team of this style to do, which could be a way in for the Terps to level things out from the possession shortage sure to be created on the other end.

Expected Starting Fives

Maryland Virginia
Nick Faust (So., 6-6) Jontel Evans (Sr., 5-11)
Dez Wells (So., 6-5) Joe Harris (Jr., 6-6)
Jake Layman (Fr., 6-8) Paul Jesperson (So., 6-6)
James Padgett (Sr., 6-8) Evan Nolte (Fr., 6-8)
Alex Len (So., 7-1) Akil Mitchell (Jr., 6-8)

After Virginia's thrashing of Clemson, I wouldn't usually expect any changes, The only rational one might be adding some more length to deal with Len, but with Tobey out that's not even an option - Mitchell and Nolte, at 6-8, are the biggest guys on the team as it stands. Three weeks ago, Mark Turgeon would've switched up his lineup, matching Virginia's more mobile frontcourt. And he still might, especially given the matchup issue Anderson will pose to whoever Maryland's playing at the 4. But he seems to have settled in on this lineup, and he seems to trust it. I'm fairly confident this'll be the five on both sides.

Question is how guys match up. Len will tower over Mitchell and should get the ball all day long. Nolte's a stretch four who'll push Padgett's defense, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Charles Mitchell get the lion's share of minutes at the 4. Layman's a natural matchup with Jesperson, and I suspect Faust will be asked to guard Harris. It'll be interesting to see how Virginia handles Maryland's vastly superior length.

Matchup to Watch

Alex Len vs. Akil Mitchell. You get the feeling that if Maryland's going to make the furious run down the stretch they need to make for the NCAA Tournament, Len will have to light things up. That's especially true when he's facing a guy like Mitchell, who is a generous 6-8 and a full five inches shorter than the Ukrainian. Unless Mike Tobey makes a miraculous recovery from mono, Len will have a massive size advantage all game long. This isn't the first time we've said as much, but it's a game that he really should be dominating, in every facet: keeping the ball out of the paint on defense, cleaning up the boards on both ends of the floor, and consistently either scoring over smaller opposition or at least having the offense effectively run through him. Maryland might be able to win without a virtuoso Len performance, but it'll be almost impossible for them to lose with one.

Prediction

KenPom (admittedly) overrates teams likes Virginia, without factoring in that they're unusually ineffective on the road while Maryland is unusually effective at home, and he still thinks Maryland will win. If I were a betting man, taking Maryland to cover would look might appetizing to me. Not because I think the Terrapins have found themselves - they probably haven't - but because I think the Terps' conference showing to this point belies their quality, while Virginia's flatters them. It's bold given that the Cavs just took Clemson to the woodshed, but I'm oddly confident that Maryland will pull this one out. It won't be pretty and it won't be by double-digits, but Virginia is a young team on the road dealing with injuries, which probably has killed their margin for error. A few mistakes will be enough for Maryland to squeak out with a win. Terps 63, Virginia 55.

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