How many times in the past few years has Maryland gotten a crucial win over UNC? It seems like it's happening every other year at this point. Right now would be a pretty good time to get another one: sitting squarely on the bubble, this game is a literal must-win for the Terrapins' at-large tournament hopes.
This isn't last year's North Carolina, with talent but no direction. No, these Tar Heels are legitimate; they aren't as good as they were a few years ago and will be a few years from now, but they're back to being in the top 2 in the ACC. They've won 9 of their last 10, with the lone loss coming at Duke by just six points. They lost point guard Larry Drew II along the way, but that's an addition by subtraction type of loss, with freshman Kendall Marshall filling in more than admirably.
Actually, Marshall has been more than admirable: he's been great. Over the last six games - the timespan since Drew transferred out - he's averaging 34 minutes, 10.5 points and 7.5 assists with just 3.1 turnovers. He had a 16-assist, 3-turnover game against FSU, of all teams. His numbers are a significant upgrade over Drew's 4 points and 4 assists, but he also provides more leadership and steadiness on the floor, something UNC lacked last year. He's the perfect type of point guard for a team loaded with talent, which UNC certainly is.
Speaking of that talent: UNC has more than their fair share of McDonald's All-Americans. Most of them are starting to live up to their billing. Tyler Zeller is averaging 14 points and 7.4 rebounds per game and will likely provide one of the toughest matchups Jordan Williams has seen all year. Jon Henson is near double-double numbers, with 11.1 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. Harrison Barnes has finally turned it on, averaging 17.5 ppg in the last eight contests. Dexter Strickland has been quietly efficient, averaging about 8 ppg.
In a matchup of pure talent, Maryland wouldn't (and doesn't) have a chance. But playing and beating UNC has never been about talent, at least not for Maryland. It's about Maryland executing and creating a gameplan to expose the Tar Heels' weaknesses.
Unfortunately, their weaknesses aren't many, either. They're probably the best rebounding team in the conference. They're #2 in the nation in defensive efficiency, a product of their length, athleticism, and increased discipline. They don't turn the ball over much and do it even less since giving Marshall more playing time. In the past month and a half, they've been even better at almost everything.
But they haven't been untouchable. They've had a few close calls, including a three-point victory at Miami and a two-point win at home against Boston College their last time out. That BC game was terrible to watch: the score was in the 40s, the lowest total in Dean Dome history, and UNC nearly gifted away a 15-point lead with a 5-minute scoreless streak worthy of Maryland's collapses. Seriously, over the final seven minutes of that game, they scored just three points.
Therein lies UNC's biggest weakness: scoring. Well, perhaps that's putting it wrongly: UNC puts up a lot of points, but that's mostly because of their fastest-in-the-ACC tempo and transition buckets. When it comes to efficiency and shooting, Carolina struggles. They're 7th in the conference in offensive efficiency, 9th in eFG%, and dead last in 3-pt shooting. In fact, they have exactly one outside shooting threat: Leslie McDonald, who shoots 37% from three. (As mentioned earlier, you can't leave Kendall Marshall open from deep, but he's not exactly a threat.)
Quite simply, they're not good at shooting. It shows up in their losses and close wins. They were in the 30s in shooting % against BC. They were in the 20s when they lost to GT earlier in the year. If you can keep UNC out of transition and out of the paint, they'll have to shoot, and that probably means a close game. That's easier said than done, of course, though forcing UNC to shoot over the top of a zone might work pretty well and would be the strategy I'd try.
The other obvious tactic is to play a slow-down game and get UNC out of their pace. It worked wonders for BC and most of UNC's close games have had scores in the 60s and low 70s. Unfortunately, that's not Maryland's game, either, and doing that would probably do just as much damage to Maryland as it would UNC.
This might not be a game for Jordan Williams to dominate. For the most part, UNC has done an admirable job of limiting opposing big men. Reggie Johnson of Miami had a double-double with 11 points and 13 boards, but it was Malcolm Grant's 17 that really had the Hurricanes in the game. Clemson's Jerai Grant had only 2 points in the first matchup between the two; in the second, the Tigers' starting frontcourt combined for 2 points. On the other hand, they've had some serious trouble guarding dynamic guards, like Clemson's Demontez Stitt (17 points), North Carolina State's Lorenzo Brown (20 points), Virginia Tech's Malcolm Delaney (28 points), and Georgia Tech's Iman Shumpert (30 points).
Jordan will probably still end up with a double-double, because that's his game. But Terrell Stoglin will probably have another big game - at the very least, he needs to.
This game is a mixture of weird feelings. On the one hand, Maryland is playing their best basketball of the year and finally have some scorers not named Jordan Williams. Stoglin has transformed this team, so much so that I wouldn't really be surprised if Maryland came away with an upset.
On the other hand, I'm not sure how well Maryland matches up with the Tar Heels. Both will play at an up-tempo pace, while UNC is good enough to limit Jordan Williams. It might be up to Maryland's defense to make or break this game.
More in the gameday guide tomorrow. For now, I'm torn, but I'm thinking UNC by a couple.