Going into Maryland's game against Pittsburgh, most viewed the contest as a "test" more than anything. I know I did. And even though Maryland ended up losing, you can say rather definitively that the test was passed.
Maryland might not've won, but the Terrapins went toe-to-toe with the #4 team in the country with the score just two possessions apart in the final two minutes. In the end, Maryland missed more and more free throws and gave up more and more rebounds to let Pitt pull away, stretching the lead to the final margin of 79-70. And in the end, it's still the most encouraging loss I've seen in a very long time.
Make no mistake: Maryland lost this game, but they looked outstanding at times and found out a lot about the team. The most definitive conclusion of the night, though, was negative: Maryland needs to get better at free throw shooting. A lot better. I said earlier that this problem wasn't going to be long-lasting. I was wrong. Maryland shot 14-30 from the stripe (that's 47%), including a god-awful 2-11 from Jordan Williams and James Padgett. If they hit 70% - just 70%, a little worse than what they had last year and a rather average number - they win this game and knock off a team in the top 5 in the country.
It's clear the problems run deep here. Considering that Maryland's style of play will lead the to a lot of free throws (especially from Jordan Williams) they need to fix this. I can't stress this enough no matter how many times I say it: if Maryland fixes free throw shooting and only free throw shooting, they win this game. Luckily, it should be an easy fix, but I'll stop worrying once they start knocking them down.
The other major problem of the day came in the post. Pitt outrebounded Maryland by 20, 43-23, and the Terps gave up 11 offensive rebounds. The second-chance points were killer and gave Pitt a few momentum swings that kept them going during their runs. Oh, and for the record, the refereeing was awful, but Maryland got a few calls of their own. Bad, bad reffing that killed Maryland's momentum a couple of times, but not too damning.
Here's the good news, and it's very good: Maryland not only held their own, they weren't far away from outplaying Pittsburgh in this game. Oh, and if you forgot, Pittsburgh's ranked #4 in the country. In fact, if not for those eight or so minutes in the middle of the game when Pitt scored 21 or 25 points (well, that and their free throw shooting), Maryland is the better team in this game.
Cliff Tucker was the gigantic bright spot of the day. He had 17 points to lead all scorers (yes, all) and even pitched in 5 assists. He might've been the best player on either team. If there was any doubt that he'd made the leap to a serious ACC contributor, it's now gone. In fact, he's now a star of this team, having passed Sean Mosley, who had just 7 points on 3-9 shooting and came up short in yet another game. I'm remaining cautiously optimistic about Mosley, but he has a lot of work to do.
Jordan Williams was fine, but we might've found out that he isn't yet capable of taking over games against top-flight opponents. Don't get me wrong, 14 and 9 is a good statline, but he was very quiet for most of the game and had most of the stats at the start and end of the game.
Adrian Bowie still leads the starting PG spot, even if he isn't exactly where we want him to be yet. He did turn the ball over 4 times, but scored 9 points and had 3 assists. In watching the game, there was more good than bad from Bowie, who started to force a little toward the end. Pe'Shon Howard may or may not be starter-worthy eventually and didn't get as much burn as I had expected. Terrell Stoglin was about as much of a mixed bag as is possible: he forced a ton of shots and is clearly way more concerned with scoring than anything else, but he also was a huge sparkplug off the bench and put up 9 points.
What was more encouraging than perhaps anything else (outside of Tucker) was just how resilient this team is. They might not be Gary's smartest squad ever, but they're gritty and never gave up. They found ways to score and generally came up with stops when they needed them, and that will serve them well against worse teams.
If you believe in moral victories, this was pretty much the definition. If you don't, the play during the loss was about as encouraging as you can get in a loss. Fix the free throws, which should be fine by ACC play or so, and this team will make plenty of noise.