7 up, 7 down. It's been a red hot start for the Terrapins, and they've been perched atop of the polls for three straight weeks. But after three games vs lather lackluster competition, it's now time for the home stretch. Maryland faces three ACC opponents, all Top 10 and another Top 10 team, arch-rival Johns Hopkins. That's not counting the ACC Tournament, in which Maryland is likely to compete in. These next 5 weeks or so will be the true test for this Maryland team in 2014 and what the expectations should be in May and whether they're good enough to get where they want to be, playing on Memorial Day for a 3rd time in 4 years.
First up is an away trip to North Carolina. The Tar Heels return multiple very talented offensive starlets, namely Joey Sankey, Jimmy Bitter, and Chad Tutton. Sankey leads Carolina in points with 30 (17 G, 13 A). Bitter is 2nd with 23 (15 G, 8 A), and Tutton is 4th with 15 (13 G, 2 A). With the help of these 3 and other contributors, the Tar Heels average a whopping 15.3 goals per game. A potent Carolina offense has been a staple under coach Joe Breschi and this year is no different.
Along with their very potent offense, North Carolina gets fantastic play at the face-off X from FR FOGO Stephen Kelly. Kelly shined and was crucial in a road win vs Princeton and then was fantastic again this weekend against one of the top FOGO's in the country in Duke's Brandon Fowler. The Tar Heels are a team who lives off possessions and an ability to score goals in bunches. When you put deadly shooters and scorers, with a talented FOGO, you have a very dangerous offensive team.
The issue with North Carolina, and what's prevented them from getting back to Championship Weekend for the first time since 1993 (the Tar Heels went to 12 Final Fours from 1980-1993, 5 Championship games, and won 4 National Championships) has been their ability to hold on to leads late in games and to play defense without the ball down the stretch. Carolina held a 9-4 lead over Denver in the NCAA Quarterfinals last year before losing 12-11 and being outscored 5-1 in the 4th Quarter. The issues have spilled over to this season as well. UNC lead 8-3 in the second half vs Notre Dame but let it slip away at home 11-10. The Tar Heels vanquished some of those troubles by getting a come from behind win vs Princeton, but the issues resurfaced again vs Duke on Saturday. After playing terrific defense the entire day, and the Tar Heels do play very good defense for the majority of their games, they took a poor shot on a Man-Up opportunity instead of burning clock and Duke took advantage to tie the game and won it 9-8 in OT.
North Carolina is a extremely potent offensive team, has a effective face-off game, and plays very solid defense for the vast majority of games. But they haven't found a way to play with and protect both a big lead late in games and a small one. If North Carolina could do that, they'd be a perennial power. But the issue lingers, and for a Maryland team who has shown an ability to score goals in bunches, and has many offensive threats....it's an area to exploit late in the game.
While I feel like I mention this in every preview, I'll have to say it again. Charlie Raffa is a key for Maryland. A big one. He's been banged up the last couple games and sat out the game vs Michigan. While Jon Garino did a solid job in the second half of the Michigan game, he still had a mixed back day overall. A mixed bag performance just simply wouldn't be good enough for Maryland vs North Carolina. If Carolina is able to control the pace and hold a sizable edge in possessions, eventually they'll pull away. Maryland would likely be able to minimize the effect through Niko Amato and a very good clearing game, but eventually the Tar Heels would take advantage. And pull away. But if it's the reverse, and Maryland is the team with the edge in possessions and playing at their pace, a slower game where their sharpshooters can take aim and their able to suffocate the UNC offense in the 3rd and 4th Quarter, Maryland will be in very good shape. Raffa is likely to go and that's a good sign.
The other good sign for Maryland that they've been missing in crucial moments the last two years is the balanced scoring that they carry into this match-up. Numerous offensive players have contributed and Maryland needs them on show. When the Terps get 3, 4, even 5 players getting significant action and making an impact they are very hard to beat. Mike Chanenchuk, Matt Rambo, Jay Carlson, Connor Cannizzaro, and Henry West all have shown themselves to be very good options offensively and if they're cooking early...the Terps could get in a groove quick. Balanced scoring and multiple options are what make this Maryland team deadly. We've seen it so far this year and if it continues, Maryland is in a very, very good spot on Saturday.
This is also a very important game for conference placing and earning a berth in the ACC Tournament. Maryland sits at 2-0 and tied for 1st in the standings with Notre Dame. With two teams at 0-2, Syracuse and North Carolina (Syracuse plays Duke on Sunday) if Maryland went to 3-0 they would almost surely be playing in the ACC Tournament from April 25-27. Only the Top 4 teams in the standings earn a berth, with the other two playing a "showcase" game on Saturday (Semi-Finals are Friday night, Final is Sunday afternoon). A berth would give them an opportunity to win the ACC on their way out, and also more opportunities to increase seeding in the NCAA Tournament.
It's definitely a very intriguing match-up on Saturday and to add to that, it's on TV! I know you guys have been dying for a TV game and you've got it. It's the Game of the Week and it's televised! Everyone can rest easy. Anyhow, face-off is slated for 2 PM at Kenan Stadium (the football stadium, and not lacrosse stadium Fetzer Field). As said, it's nationally broadcast on ESPNU. If you can't get to a TV, it's also on ESPN3 and of course the WatchESPN app. So make sure to tune in anyway you can and root on the Terps as they look to move to 8-0 and kick off a key stretch run looking towards late April and May.