Enough of the never-ending depression that is the oblong ball. Basketball returns in a big way tomorrow, as Maryland finishes up their Puerto Rico trip with a 5th-place game against the high-scoring Iona Gaels. With it, the Terrapins have a shot at something of a statement win, and a chance to leave San Juan with an undeniably successful 2-1 mark on the island.
It won't be easy, though: ignore the mid-major name, because Iona is very good this year. In fact, the Gaels have arguably the best offensive backcourt in the country, featuring lead guard Scott Machado and high-scoring combo Momo Jones, of Arizona fame. (Jones was granted a hardship waiver to transfer from Zona to Iona and be immediately eligible.) Oh, and that's not all: they also have Mike Glover, a 6-7 forward who averaged a double-double last season and was the 2011-12 Preseason MAAC Player of the Year. Yeah, there's some talent.
Their stacked roster has created some very impressive offensive performances early in the year: the Gaels have topped 90 points in both of their first two games, which included Purdue, one of the best defensive teams in the country last season. In fact, they took the Boilermakers to the wire, losing 91-90 on a Robbie Hummel three. Iona as a team, and Jones and Machado in particular, will seriously test Maryland and Mark Turgeon's new defensive emphasis.
If you don't know Machado, you might be in for a bit of a treat. He's generally considered one of the best pure point guards in the country; in fact, Doug Gottlieb had a segment on his radio show earlier in the week comparing Machado with Kendall Marshall. He's put up a double-double in both of his first two games, averaging 15.5 points and 13 assists - yes, 13 assists - per game. I'm assuming Terrell Stoglin will draw that defensive matchup, which should be interesting given Turgeon's supposed misgivings about Stogs' defensive commitment.
I'm not too worried about it, though, particularly because Stoglin is famous for getting a chip on his shoulder. If Machado makes him look silly, it'll be game on, and hopefully on both sides of the floor.
The other option is to switch Stoglin off on Jones and let Nick Faust or Sean Mosley deal with Machado. Momo is a bit of a chucker, much like Stoglin, and can run hot and cold. He appears to have elevated his game a bit from his well-known campaign last season in Arizona, particularly from outside, but he can struggle, as he did against Western Michigan on Friday, when he shot 2-9 from the field.
Those two tend to get all the pub, but the roster outside of them is actually pretty well loaded. It's not a two-man show in the back court, which also features 6-4 sniper Kyle Smyth, who hit 7-13 from deep against Western Michigan; Jermel Jenkins, who dropped 13 in the one-point Purdue loss; and Ra'Shad James, who dropped 14 on Friday. It's not hard to score when Machado sets you up, but this roster certainly makes the most of their opportunities.
And it only gets better from there. It's not often that a conference's Preseason Player of the Year and a finalist for the Naismith gets overlooked, but that's what Michael Glover's currently dealing with. The 6-7 senior forward averaged 18 points and 10 boards a game last season, but the addition of Jones and the play of Machado has taken some spotlight off him. He's picked up more or less where he left off, playing 37 minutes and going for a double-double on Hummel and Purdue. He's not huge or physically imposing, but he has a very nice touch around the rim and is very quick. He can step out a bit, too. I'm guessing Ashton Pankey will cover him, and that'll be an interesting battle.
If some of these numbers seem inflated, they are, at least a little. Iona scores in the 90s, after all, and part of that is efficient offense; another part of it is playing at a very high tempo. Their tempo is the 17th-fastest nationally, per KenPom (adjusted tempo); in pure numbers, they have the second-most possessions per game in the country. The tempo will challenge Maryland's depth, for sure, though A) the Terrapins are probably a bit better in transition than they are in the the half court, and B) having a full day of rest before this game should help fatigue. Still, expect the Gaels to try to push the issue, and Maryland to respond by taking possessions slowly when they get the ball.
And speaking of Maryland's offense: this has the potential to be a big day for the Terps. Iona, for all of their offensive prowess, is notably poor on the other end of the floor. They gave up 91 points to a Purdue team missing its two leading scorers from last year, and then gave up 88 points to Western Michigan, considered the worst team in the field. WMU, in fact, hung 59 on the Gaels in the second half. Sure, Iona had checked out a bit, but that's a pretty damning representation of their defensive ability.
In fact, their defense against Purdue (and, in fairness, Purdue's defense against them) was described as "pick-up defense." No rotation, no urgency, no close-outs. I don't think Maryland will be very good offensively this year, but if they can't have a strong showing here, I'm not sure they ever will.
So, of course, we end up with a sort of strength vs. strength. Iona prides itself on its offense and a quick tempo. Maryland prides itself on its defense (or, at least, we think they do) and a more conservative speed. I'm not quite sure which will give, though I do think Turgeon will try to ensure that this is Iona's toughest, most fundamental defensive test yet.
This game will likely be the most telling of Maryland's three games in Puerto Rico. A poor performance (and/or a loss) should probably signal that Maryland's sweet spot is beating the Colorados of the world, that they'll be fighting to stay out of the bottom few spots in the ACC. A strong performance (and/or a win) is a much more hopeful thing: Iona is fatally flawed, but quite good and a likely tourney team. Maryland gets a victory and suddenly Illinois, Notre Dame, and mid-level ACC teams like Virginia and N.C. State seem almost ... beatable.
And, if you really want to take it that far, let's go one step farther: Iona is actually a likely resumé win. They're top 60 on KenPom, will boost RPI, and are heavy favorites to win the MAAC and make the NCAA Tournament. If they do that and Maryland can get the win, that's a helpful W come March, whether for the NCAAT or the NIT.
I know it's a bit silly to talk about this team actually making the Tournament, to which they don't seem particularly close right now. But we're a sports blog, and that might be part of our mission statement. Hey, beat Iona, get another nice OOC win against Notre Dame, and you never know what might happen. Those are several gigantic ifs, but there it is.
For right now, let's take it one step at a time. Iona is up. See you right back here at 2:00.