There's one really good thing you can definitely say about Maryland basketball right now: there's never a dull moment with these Terrapins.
I remind you of a stance I have recently and rapidly adopted: no matter the opposition, Maryland will be in a battle in just about every game this year. That was borne out tonight, when the Terrapins fought tooth-and-nail against a Radford team that entered the contest 3-10 and riding a nine-game losing streak.
Maryland hadn't played a game in nine days, and it was pretty evident with their performance. They trailed for the vast majority of the first half and only by a late run were able to enter the break tied at 39. Both teams had a rough go of it offensively in the second half, but Maryland was a smidge better largely thanks to a 17-point game from Ashton Pankey and a 10-point second half from Terrell Stoglin. And so the Terrapins escaped by the skin of their teeth for the third time in their last three games, snatching this one 65-60.
By the way: Maryland's last three opponents have an average KenPom ranking of 301st nationally. And Maryland has won those three games by an average of 4 points. Hey: at least they're winning them. (Looking at you, Pitt.)
Before I get into a few large conclusions, there's a really big storyline that deserves talking about: Pe'Shon Howard's return. I was hyping it pretty hard pre-game, with good reason; Howard, the only true point guard on Maryland's roster, stood to drastically change the way the Terrapins played, hopefully for the better. Most expected him to pick up around 20 minutes or so and slowly work his way back into the groove of things, perhaps culminating with a starting spot in a few weeks.
That isn't quite how it worked out. Howard didn't start, but he played 32 minutes in his first contest back from his broken foot, which was the second-most on the team behind only Stoglin's 35. Even more incredibly, he played 19 minutes in the second half. Yes, I think it's a safe bet to say Mark Turgeon sees him as a pretty critical player. Expect to see him in the starting lineup soon.
As for how he looked: more or less like Pe' has always looked. A little too fancy at times - he had a needless turnover on the fastbreak when he tried to fake a behind-the-back pass - but usually under control, sensible, and with great floor vision. Especially in the first half he was a big help in making sure Maryland had good ball motion and didn't rely too much on any one player (ie, Stoglin).
Thing is, I don't think most people were looking forward to Howard's return because he's a good player, but more because his presence was going to, in theory, make everything run more smoothly. Put a true point on the floor, move Nick Faust to the 3, let Terrell Stoglin function off the ball, and profit. Voila.
His presence certainly changed the way Maryland's offense functioned, at least early on, but I'm not sure they looked all that much better. It looked to me like there was usually much more motion and set plays out of the Terrapins' offensive, but their scoring touch was somewhat blunt, particularly in the second half. Things were definitely less sloppy - only 7 turnovers - but not especially more productive.
Stoglin in particular seemed to have trouble figuring out where to fit in with this new offense. A lot of national commenters - like the guy doing color commentary tonight for El Tres - seem to think that Howard's return will naturally benefit Stoglin by moving him off the ball. I'm not so sure. Stoglin thrives with the ball in his hands, when he can take players off the dribble and pull up or try to create contact. He's not a cutter off the ball, nor a spot-up shooter; he's a creator. I'm not sure how possible it is for Howard "to get Stoglin looks," as the color commentator was so fond of saying.
And we saw a lot of those problems tonight. Stoglin finished with 15 points, but on 5-18 shooting. I'm not entirely sure that's indicative of an actually worse performance than usual so much as it is indicative of the referees swallowing their whistles more than they typically do, but he did seem a little off. He tended to force the issue, even more than he usually does. It's only one game, so we'll have to see if the offense adapt. It certainly wouldn't surprise me if they do, but it wouldn't really surprise me if they didn't either.
Defensively, it was a sort of tale of two halves. Radford is one of the worst-shooting teams in the country - they were the fourth-worst nationally in effective FG% coming into tonight, I believe - but they shot the cover off the ball in the first half. Their eFG% in the first twenty minutes was top-10-in-the-country good, and they shot nearly 50% from deep. A good amount of that has to do with Maryland, which struggled with close-outs and especially switching off screens. (I have a feeling Howard's foot may have something to do with that.) Some, too, has to do with Radford: a 0% (0-11) 3pt shooter banked in a 25-footer in the opening minutes. I don't mean to deflect blame from this away from Maryland - it was in many cases a scary defensive performance - but sometimes there's not much you can do.
That said, at some point it has to shift from "Teams heat up against Maryland from deep at an unusual rate" to "Maybe Maryland just isn't very good at perimeter defense." I think everyone's known that for quite some time, but it's getting a little difficult to argue otherwise. I want to look some more at the numbers before I adopt such a stance, but the naked eye is pretty damning.
The second half, for what it's worth, was miles better. They did a much better job of staying in front of the ballhandler, switching off screens, and (with one notable exception) closing out on shooters. By the end of the game, it turned out that Radford shot the ball at their usual rates: 32% from the field, and 29% from 3.
So the blame for tonight's struggles, at least as I see them, doesn't lie so much with the defense as it does the offense. The numbers back that up: they shot 36% from the field and an eye-numbingly bad 3-13 from deep and 20-32 from the line.
We've known shooting is a problem for this team for some time; so too is running sets to get open shots. I think the second mark is improving and will get better the more Howard is on the floor, but what about the first? Will Nick "Babyfaced Assassin" Faust emerge out of the shell of Nick "All Airballs Everything" Faust? Can guys like Stoglin, Parker, and Howard hit the open looks they inevitably get? And where was the all-new-and-improved, good-at-shooting Sean Mosley tonight? (Answer: MIA. He went 1-4 for only 3 points.)
I do think there's some potential there from Faust in particular; I'm less certain about guys like Parker and Howard suddenly acquiring dead-eye strokes. Either way, I'm very eager and anxious to see how this offense develops over the next few games.
Meanwhile, I feel terrible for getting through 1100 words and hardly mentioning the performance put together by Ashton Pankey. In the language of Mike Brey: he was a man tonight. He finished with a team-high 17, the vast majority coming on easy dunks. I seriously miss big men who dunk everything; it seems like Pankey is going to fill that role on this team, and I couldn't be happier. Pankey, by the way, has averaged 14 points and 5 boards a game since getting benched against Notre Dame. That performance seems an eternity away, in almost every sense of the word.
It seems evident that there isn't too much to be optimistic about around these parts given the recent middling results against three pretty bad teams. Less encouraging is the performances. And yet I still find myself oddly, perplexingly unworried. It's getting worse - I didn't have a care in the world after MSM, but I'm a little nervy now - but I still find myself more relieved that Maryland won than anything else. This team has never been a contender for the NCAA Tournament, and so long as they're getting better and building toward something, whether that comes this year or next, I'm okay with these types of games, particularly because they're finding ways to win. Figuring out ways to win when you play poorly is important, and it's something good teams usually do.
Things will be ugly in a few ACC games, yes. And if you were harboring hopes that this was a bubble team, well, I'd kill to be wrong but I'm thinking you should've given those up awhile ago. Yet I'm still perfectly content right now to see where things go in the coming months. I can't help but feel like there are some pieces here. Whether or not they'll come together, I don't know, but they're there. At least for this year, I'm just along for the ride.