USA TODAY Sports
Two wins in a row have Maryland on the bubble and playing confident and loose. Can they keep rolling against North Carolina?
Where + When: 3:00 at Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro, N.C.
Where to Watch: ESPN.
Lines: Vegas: UNC -4.5 KenPom: UNC by 3
Momentum. The Terps have it, and they're looking like a different team right now. Their last three halves of basketball have been as good as we've seen them play probably since the Greivis Vasquez years. I'm not going into corners that may or may not have been turned or whether it's another false dawn or anything like that - just enjoy the basketball while it's here. It's entertaining, and worth enjoying. And it transforms a game like this from a probable Maryland loss to one in which anything at all could happen.
Revenge. Maryland swept Wake and split with Duke, but now for the first time they face a team that swept their season series. Carolina looked comfortably the better team in both regular season matchups, but this is a different-looking Terps team - one with yet another motivating factor to push them.
Bubble. I didn't even want to say it yesterday, but today it's impossible to ignore it. Maryland's a consensus last four out team at this point, and a win over UNC - with everyone else in the field standing pat, save Alabama and Ole Miss - would vault them up the ladder without a doubt. Enough to get in? I don't know, but certainly enough to give the committee an excuse to put them in. That's all I'm looking for.
As I mentioned yesterday, though, even if this is getting teasingly exciting, remember that Maryland's pretty much playing with house money at this point. They're not expected to be a tournament team; they were left for dead a week ago. They'll show up at a stadium in Greensboro at 3:00, playing a team in baby blue. Let's just see what happens.
Oh, and as a rough rooting guide for you: pull for Memphis, VCU, Vanderbilt, and Florida today. If everything breaks right there, a win over UNC will look mighty good.
Deztacular. 21 against Wake. 30 against Duke. Both talismanic performances in every aspect, from defense to rebounding to playing under control to making hustle plays. He's playing out of his skin at the moment. Maybe the drop comes now - or maybe he goes all Gilchrist and it doesn't. I don't know, but I do know if that the Terps have any chance, it's with him going bonkers again.
Injuries. Maryland, as has been par for the course all year, has none. Their depth is starting to pay dividends: players have been kept on tight leashes all year, which leaves fresher legs and minds for March, plus multiple looks to throw at opponents. Meanwhile, Carolina has a short rotation that might get even shorter: P.J. Hairston, who torched the Terps the last time the two met, had a lengthy cut between his fingers of his non-shooting hand, requiring four stitches, and he looks like a good bet to not play. The Heels losing a big scorer and 30 minutes or so of game time would be a substantial blow.
The Opponent (An Overview)
I've said a few times this year that Maryland was a team built, in many ways, to beat Duke. In the same way, Carolina is a team built to beat Maryland.
That's clearly borne out of the way Carolina twice handled the Terps in conference play; it's also clear when you look at them on paper. Maryland's about height, athleticism, length, and rebounding - each an aspect Carolina is comfortable in themselves. They're playing four guards now, but every player has a long wingspan and great athletic ability, which minimizes the advantage Maryland's used to having. They're also one of the best rebounding teams in the ACC - not quite as good as Maryland, but top-5 in both offensive and defensive boards, so it's unlikely that there'll be a massive differential there.
And unlike Duke, which is built around having a dominant post threat and four perimeter sharpshooters, UNC is about running and solid offensive execution - see Marcus Paige's 10 assists against FSU last night. The Terps could counter Mason Plumlee all game long, throwing Duke's gameplan out of whack; UNC is not nearly as single-minded.
On the other side, whereas Duke played a relatively disciplined man defense, UNC is all about getting in your face. They lead the ACC in turnover percentage, which they use to get out on the break and keep a high tempo. Their biggest strength just so happens to be Maryland's biggest weakness.
That said, there are a few things to look to exploit. First, they've been outrebounded fairly consistently since going to a four guard lineup, which they may or may not stay in with Hairston doubtful. If they do stay in that four-guard look, Mark Turgeon will have something of a decision to make in how to match it, but no matter what he does Alex Len will have a sizable advantage inside. He's not taken advantage of those all year long, but if Maryland's to have any chance he needs to have a good game.
Defensively, as well, their aggressiveness can hurt them. There's no one in the conference I'd back on guarding Dezmine Wells on current form, and if they try to get in his grill he's showing enough poise to stay composed and get past his man. That extended defense can force a lot of turnovers and harry opponents when things go right, but if an offense can break it down, there are a lot of gaps to be had. Maryland, for the first time all year, is executing on offense, and may just be able to find those gaps.
They're also a team that, frankly, doesn't shoot all that well. Despite having a few great snipers, they're prone to going cold in the halfcourt when properly guarded, like when they shot 1-14 from three against Duke. And losing Hairston, probably their best offensive player, is a blow that won't help their shooting. Maryland needs to come out with the same energy and intensity defensively that they had against Duke: like I said about the tourney, just give UNC a reason to miss a shot. If they're making contested threes or are executing through good defense, well, then it's just not your day. But always give yourself a chance at making them miss, and more often than not they probably will. Unless Reggie Bullock goes insane on them again, of course.
It's yet another tactical move for Mark Turgeon, too. You don't want to let UNC run; you want to keep them in the halfcourt and force them to execute against you. But Maryland's own little Renaissance here has come in the fast break - it seems like the first time this team has started believing in themselves, believing in each other, believing in their system. They're playing loose and confident when games are in the 70s in possessions - almost like they've finally found their identity, at least a little. So do you try to go away from that and make a tactical move? Or do you damn the torpedoes and go full-on death or glory high-tempo?
I say death-or-glory. We're playing with house money. And I suspect Turgeon votes the same.
Expected Starting Lineups
|Pe`Shon Howard (Jr., 6-3)||Marcus Paige (Fr., 6-0)|
|Nick Faust (So., 6-6)||Dexter Strickland (Sr., 6-3)|
|Dez Wells (So., 6-5)||Leslie McDonald (Jr., 6-5)|
|Jake Layman (Fr., 6-8)||Reggie Bullock (Jr., 6-7)|
|Alex Len (So., 7-1)||James Michael McAdoo (So., 6-9)|
Both teams have one uncertainty in the lineup. For Maryland, who plays the four spot? Does Turgeon stick with Layman, matching UNC's small look and letting the Terps both press and run? Or does he go with Charles Mitchell for rebounding or James Padgett for experience? I think Layman is the most logical, and the one we see, unless Turgeon is focused on the halfcourt game.
Carolina, meanwhile, needs to figure out what they're doing without Hairston, should he not play. The most simple thing is a direct plug-n-play: McDonald comes in at the three, and everything else stays the same. They could also add a post player instead, Brice Johnson or Desmond Hubert, but that's a much less dynamic lineup and it gets away from what got the Heels on their recent run.
Matchup to Watch
It's tough to look away from Dez Wells - especially if he's guarding Reggie Bullock, who, much like Rasheed Sulaimon, seems to just love playing the Terps - but there's another individual battle I find more intriguing: Pe`Shon Howard vs. Marcus Paige. Howard probably won't guard Paige - he's usually on a dangerous outside shooter, as he's probably Maryland's best off-ball defender at this point. But I'm more concerned about what he does offensively: not necessarily in shooting the ball, as we've seen he's still not up to snuff there, but in controlling the game. That's where his rehabilitation has been most obvious: against Duke, for instance, he had five assists and not a single turnover. The first time these two met, he turned it over seven times; the second time, he was better with only two turnovers but he only played 20 minutes, not dictating the tempo like he has in the past two games.
Maryland lost both times these two teams played in the regular season. If they win now, there are four differences that explain it: Dez Wells putting the offense on his back, Maryland's increased poise and energy, Carolina missing Hairston, and, of particular importance, finally playing with a fit and firing Howard at the point.
Every time I get my hopes up about these team, they turn around and crush them. And every time I finally leave them for dead, they turn around and build me back up. It's why predictions are so tough, and generally so wrong: think they finally figured out how to win games after beating State or Duke and pick them to beat UNC or BC, be wrong; think you've finally figured out that it'll just take another year and then they go and beat Duke. But there's a pattern here - I get these wrong. A lot. So hopefully I'll keep getting them wrong: Carolina by six.
That prediction is an offering to the basketball gods, but it's also based somewhat in reality. Carolina's playing great basketball right now and aren't measurably worse than they were when the Terps lost to them twice. They're just plain not a good matchup.
(And with that, I've just ensured that Maryland still has a chance of beating them. You're welcome, all.)