Previewing Maryland-Alabama: Terps, Tide battle for NIT semi-finals spot

Streeter Lecka

What: The Maryland Terrapins take to the road to face the Alabama Crimson Tide in the NIT quarter-finals, with a spot in Madison Square Garden on the line

Where + When: 7:30 tip in Coleman Coliseum, Tuscaloosa, Ala. (capacity: 15,316)

Where to Watch: ESPN

Lines: Vegas: Alabama -3.5 KenPom: Alabama by 3

Notes/Storylines

On the road again. Maryland's recent burst of progress has come almost entirely in home and neutral court games: they haven't played a true road game since losing to Virginia in Charlottesville back on March 10, two weeks and six games ago. The only three road games the Terps have won all year have come against Northwestern, Wake Forest, and Virginia Tech, none particularly imposing opponents; Alabama is a huge test, and a win would be another stepping stone and mile marker for a young team.

Injuries. The Tide are without senior guard Andrew Steele, who's missed the last four games and just underwent ankle surgery over the weekend. But Maryland's probably made out worse, with Seth Allen missing at least tonight's game with a broken left hand and potentially the rest of the tourney.

Rest. Not only that, it looks like playing five games in a week's time has caught up with them: both Dez Wells and Logan Aronhalt missed Sunday's practice but are expected to play tonight, indicative of niggling injuries that are usually the result of overuse. They finally got four days for their bodies to recover, which hopefully will have them fresh going into tonight's tip. Alabama, on the other hand, have a relatively quick turnaround from a Saturday game, and though they've played less over the past two weeks it's possible that fatigue from the past few days will have started to set in on their end.

The Opponent (An Overview)

I'm still not exactly sure why Alabama is considered to have had a better tournament résumé than Maryland, but I suppose I'm a tad biased and that's a bit irrelevant anyway. Regardless, the Tide were considered one of the first teams out of the NCAA Tournament, going 19-12 in the regular season, doing well in a weak SEC but lacking great quality wins. They had only two wins over tournament teams - one against auto-qualifier South Dakota State, the other against Villanova early in the year - but they were able to beat fringe teams Kentucky (with Nerlens Noel) and Tennessee (twice). So all things told, the Tide and the Terps are pretty evenly matched teams, which will make this an interesting, likely tightly-contested game.

The Tide have some similarities to Virginia, a team that really vexed Maryland in the regular season. Like the Cavs, the Tide are a pretty small team, essentially going with a four-guard lineup for the majority of the game, lacking any real post presence. Also like UVA, they hardly run at all, at fewer than 63 possessions per game, one of the slowest marks in the country. Compare that to Maryland, which has suddenly turned into North Carolina and simply loves to get out and run these days - and, in fact, running seems a prerequisite to winning, except for the rare occasion when they run into a team that does it better than they do. (See: actual Carolina.) Denver successfully ground the life out of Thursday's game, and had Maryland not been able to finally push the tempo a bit late they probably wouldn't have gotten out alive. The game may well come down to which team can better control the pace of the game.

Again like Virginia, Alabama is a team built on their defense. They play a man look, an aggressive one that forces a lot of turnovers, second in the SEC in that mark. And yet despite their aggressiveness they have a fairly strong defensive field goal-percentage, a strong 42nd nationally. That's a dangerous combination, and it indicates just how collectively well-drilled and individually talented these guys are. Once more like the Hoos, their flaw, insomuch as they have one, comes in the post, where they have minimal presence. Moussa Gueye is 7-0 but a stiff; Nick Jacobs is talented but only 6-8; and that's about all there is in the way of post players. Teams with good bigs can take the Tide inside and win, which (along with their rebounding struggles) is why Bama gives up an unusually high percentage of their points inside the arc.

Where the Tide differ, from both Virginia and Denver, the team that just gave Maryland so many problems, is that they're far from a well-drilled offensive team. They're probably better defensively than either of those teams, but they don't match up offensively. For starters, they're an immensely mediocre shooting team, with a 46.7% eFG% during conference play, shooting just 33% from deep as a team and 45.5% from inside the arc. Nor do they force rebounds or get to the line. They take care of the ball well enough, but they don't often get very good shots from doing so, nor do they have great offensive talent that can take over games themselves. Trevor Releford is a dangerous player who can put up points in a hurry, but he's not a trascendental talent, and when he has an off night things can get really ugly for the Tide. (See their 49-37 loss to Auburn in the regular season, in which they scored three points in the first ten minutes of the second half.)

Expected Starting Fives

Maryland Alabama
Pe`Shon Howard (Jr., 6-3) Trevor Releford (Jr., 6-0)
Nick Faust (So., 6-6) Trevor Lacey (So., 6-3)
Dez Wells (So., 6-5) Levi Randolph (So., 6-5)
Jake Layman (Fr., 6-8) Rodney Cooper (So., 6-6)
Alex Len (So., 7-1) Moussa Gueye (Jr., 7-0)

I'd be surprised to see changes to either team's lineup, unless Anthony Grant decides to go really small and force Alex Len's hand by using Nick Jacobs instead of Gueye. Barring that, you can bet these will be the five for both sides.

It's the Gueye-Len dynamic I'm most interested to see. Len struggles with double-teams, which is why hen can be taken out of the game. He tends to do better against teams who refuse to double him, instead trusting their big against him one-on-one - which is usually a bad idea. If Grant trusts Gueye, who is as big and strong as Len but a bit of a stiff, Alex will have a great chance at putting up points by himself in the post; if he instead looks to double, Len will need to be aware, because that'll open a ton of space for Faust and Wells against the Tide's otherwise suffocating defense. Every team has a problem defending Len, but Alabama more than most, because they have someone they can roll the dice on actually defending him.

Matchup to Watch

While the Len-Gueye battle will be a key one, as will the likely match between Dez Wells and Levi Randolph, probably the most important will be Pe`Shon Howard vs. Trevor Releford. Everything runs through Releford for the Tide, although he isn't a full-time point anymore with Trevor Lacey sharing those duties. But Howard, one of the Terrapins' best and most energetic defenders, will be tasked with keeping him in check offensively, which usually forces Alabama into a rough night.

Perhaps more importantly, Howard is the sole point on the roster now, with Seth Allen sidelined. Nick Faust can spell him when he needs a breather, but Mark Turgeon will want to limit that; Faust didn't prove particularly effective on the ball, and is settling in to life as a shooting guard particularly well. This is the ultimate test of Howard's rehabilitation, physically and mentally: can he give 30+ minutes of high-quality ball running the show at the point under pressure, in the type of game where Maryland will need solid point guard play? I don't know, but I'm ready to find out.

Prediction

We've talked a lot about Maryland using the NIT to reach milestones, continue progress, prove progress to a degree. Some will say their wins over Denver and Niagara didn't do that, but I think the Denver game was a seriously important step for this team. Not only in their flexibility - and Mark Turgeon's flexibility and in-game coaching nous - but also because they did something they had struggled with of late: grind out a low-possession game. For a spell there, it seemed like that was going to be this team (grinding out low-possession, low-scoring wins) but a flip switched mid-season, when it became clear the personnel wasn't present for that and they were better served by pressing and going with a high-flying running game. Playing out of their comfort zone and winning a game where other teams would keep the possession count low - like Virginia and Boston College - escaped them. Until they did just that against Denver, a game in which there were only 62 possessions. I had said beforehand that I thought Maryland needed the possession count to be 65+ to be comfortable, and that anything less was playing into Denver's hands. Well, they played into Denver's hands...and they still ended up winning.

That's a good sign, and it's hopefully indicative that, when similar teams, less talented than Maryland, try to control the game through tempo, like the Virginias and Boston Colleges of the world, the Terps will be able to deal with it and still be able to come out ahead. But Alabama is not likely to be so forgiving if Maryland only shows up to play for nine minutes. They'll need to do a much better job of getting out on the break, and in involving Alex Len on both sides of the floor. Denver was a warm-up test; this will be similar, but likely more challenging.

If Maryland can't force their tempo on the Tide, I'm not optimistic. If this was at home, I'm thinking Maryland would win, probably comfortably. As it stands, it'll likely be a one- or two-possession game, and my first thought is that they'll probably come out just on the wrong side of it. They haven't proven they can win a big game on the road yet, and until they can't it's tough to back them to do so - especially with Seth Allen out hurt. I'm expecting to see a game with possessions in the low-60s, with the Tide winning something like 63-60. Can't say I'd be surprised if Maryland again found a way to win, though; this team seems to be growing up more and more every day.

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