Normally I'd wait a little longer than Monday to do a first look at a game that doesn't occur until Thursday, but let's face it: there's been virtually no news today. So might as well get this out of the way while there's nothing else to discuss, right?
Maryland's game at Virginia at John Paul Jones Arena on Thursday is massively important for the Terrapins. Really, every single game from this point out is, and all for the same reason: Maryland's skating on thin ice for the NCAA tournament unless an unexpected run is on the way down the stretch. Another bad loss, even on the road, may not be something this year's Terrapins can survive.
Virginia, for their part, isn't exactly the most intimidating opponent Maryland has faced this season, but they're good enough to win this game (potentially). Tony Bennett is in his second year at Charlottesville, and he's beginning to see the fruits of his recruiting and slow-it-down offense. The Cavaliers have a bit of a head-scratching resume to this point, with wins at both Virginia Tech (which beat Maryland by 17) and Minnesota, plus losses to Seattle (which Maryland destroyed) and Stanford. And all of that is even further confounded by the fact that UVA's best player is now lost for the season with an injury. But more on all that later.
As for UVA in a nutshell, their style screams "mid-major." They go four guards. They score a majority of their points from three. Their best players are sharp-shooters and guards. They play at an achingly slow pace. They rebound poorly. They play fundamentally-sound, if unspectacular, defense. They're average the majority of the time, but are capable of beating (or losing to) anyone. Heck, they might as well be playing 2006 Butler again.
One of the defining moments in UVA's season so far is senior forward Mike Scott's season-ending injury, who was leading the Cavs in both points and rebounds while averaging a double-double. In fact, Scott was one of the best-kept secrets in the ACC prior to his injury, and was certainly good enough to give Jordan Williams fits. He went down on Jan. 8 in the game against UNC; they preceded to lose that game by just 6 points, and dropped the next two games as well.
Despite Scott's absence, though, they've played and fought well; the UNC game was close, they lost at Duke by just 16 (don't laugh; would Maryland have done that well without Williams?) and the loss at Boston College was by 3. On Saturday, they handled Georgia Tech pretty easily at home. It's hard not to wonder what this team could be right now if Scott was in the line-up.
But he isn't, so that's an exercise in futility. Without Scott, Bennett and the Cavs have turned their focus to the perimeter, where they have a mix of wizened veterans and inexperienced-yet-dynamic young talent. They start and play a four-guard lineup, with the "4" - if it can be called that - measuring just 6-6. Shades of early-decade Villanova.
The three biggest names to know are Mustapha Farrakhan, a 6-4 senior, K.T. Harrell, a highly-touted 6-5 freshman, and Joe Harris, a 6-6 freshman. Without Scott in the lineup, those are the three highest scorers for the Cavs, as well as the only three in double-digits. All are also are sharp-shooters from outside; they've combined for 213 attempts from deep, and are hitting on 43% of those. Both Farrakhan and Harrell have a pretty well-rounded game, while also possessing an impressive outside shot; Harris, on the other hand, is (at this point) little more than a sharpshooter, with over half of his points coming from beyond-the-arc.
As you might expect given the strength of those three from outside, this is primarily a perimeter-oriented team. They're tied with Boston College for the second-best three-point shooting % in the conference (behind only Duke), and trail only BC in the % of points they score from three. That makes them especially susceptible to inconsistent play: if they're on, they can beat literally any team in the country, as they showed in their upset at Minnesota, where they shot 77% from deep. But when they have a bad shooting day, they're in trouble, as they were when they lost to Seattle (just 2-20 from 3).
The guard-heavy lineup also hurts rebounding. The Cavs are the second-worst team in the ACC at offensive rebounding, leading only lowly Wake Forest. After all, they're playing four guards and are without their best rebounding. Maryland should have a big advantage on the boards, and that will be a key if UVA gets hot from the outside.
The other starter in the four-man backcourt is Jontel Evans, a 5-11 sophomore and the Cavs' point guard. He doesn't score much (just 5 ppg), but he's leading UVA in assists and has a very respectable A/TO ratio (1.87; Terrell Stoglin's, for comparison, is 1.35). Sammy Zeglinski is the first guard off the bench and gets major minutes; he's more of a distributing-oriented PG than a scorer or sharpshooter.
But what about the enormous hole that Scott left in the middle of the Virginia frontcourt? That's nigh-impossible to recover from, but someone has to take his place. That unlucky someone is Assane Sene, a raw 7-0 junior. He rarely hit 20 minutes prior to Scott's injury, but in his absence he's been pushed into major playing time; since Scott went down, Sene is averaging nearly 25 minutes per game. He's hardly an offensive weapon outside of dunks and he's more than a little foul-prone, but he's long and can be a force on the boards. He's a bit thin (just 240) to hold up against Jordan Williams in the post, but I'm intrigued to see the matchup.
Because Sene is often in foul trouble, UVA has to go to their bench for the frontcourt quite a bit. Will Sherrill is UVA's sixth man and best post player off the bench. He's a feel-good story, a 6-9 senior who used to be a walk-on before getting major minutes and earning his scholarship. He's a face-up four that plays on the perimeter quite a bit (42% from 3) and doesn't really bang all that much (just 3 rebounds per game). In fact, he's more of a 3 than a 4, as he's pretty thin despite his height, and that will hurt them if they try to play him at the 5 if Sene gets in foul trouble.
Past Sherrill is a pair of former Maryland targets, surprisingly enough, both of which are freshman. Will Regan, who we wrote about quite a bit, and Akil Mitchell were both recruited lightly by the Terrapins out of HS, but ended up at UVA instead. Regan has a face-up game pretty similar to Sherrill; Mitchell is only 6-7, but he's strong, long, and very athletic, which makes him a prolific rebounder. Neither gets a ton of playing time, but their presence is worth knowing if Sene gets in foul trouble.
Like I said earlier, UVA absolutely screams "mid-major." That might've been the case, or at least as much as it is now, if Scott hadn't gone down, but he did. They're still entirely capable of of knocking off Maryland if they can hit their shots from outside, but it's going to be harder than it was in past games; remember, most of their upsets - including the one over Minnesota - came with Scott in the lineup. With the light post play, the key to the game may be how big Jordan Williams can be, both in scoring and rebounding.
More coming in the next few days, but my first reaction is "cautiously optimistic." Because, really, no one should ever be confident with this team.