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With Len and Howard, Maryland Looks a Different Team

Happy 2012, all. I hope you enjoyed your New Year. I'm guessing Maryland basketball did.

Then again, Maryland basketball seems to be enjoying a lot right now. Pe'Shon Howard is back, Alex Len has made his debut, and the Terrapins just enjoyed their first undefeated December since 2008. It didn't always seem like they were going to escape the month without a loss, but the return of Howard and emergence of Len made the task quite a bit easier, and helped give the Terrapins their first double-digit wins of the year.

They look a very different team with that duo on the court, and a better one. It's only been two games, but Maryland looks so much more effective now that they've reached full strength. Given that the first post of the new year has to be something big, let's take an overview of what the new-look Terps have shown in their first two contests.

With more horses, Maryland is going to run and sub a lot more. I guess the second part of that was pretty much inevitable; with two extra bodies, of course Mark Turgeon is going to seriously alter his substitution patterns. It's no real surprise that that's exactly what happened: players are coming in and out of the game much more, and the days of two or three guys getting upwards of 30 minutes seem to have ended.

In fact, not a single player reached 30 yesterday against Samford. It even took Turgeon only four and a half minutes to get each of Maryland's nine scholarship players on the court. The newfound ability to rotate players with regularity should help keep guys fresh, and will be a godsend as the year winds down. And hey, it lets Turgeon send messages, too; after a slow start to the second half, he switched out four players in as big a change as he could make without resorting to walkons. Maryland has depth now, and they're going to use it.

As a side effect, it lets them push the tempo much more than they were able to do at the beginning of the year. Turgeon made note of it in his post game press conference, harping on how much he wants to get out and run (emphasis mine):

We have run a lot better the last two games. I didn't think that we ran very well in the second half today. We are a deeper team. We have been practicing running in practice for the last month but had to play differently with only seven scholarship guys. I screwed us up in the second half because we were walking it up because of me. I lost our rhythm. We should never stop running.

I doubt Maryland will turn into VMI or Arkansas or North Carolina, but they are running more. In their first ten games of the season, they averaged 64 possessions a game. (And that was heavily influenced by Iona running like crazy and the Terrapins obliging them with dozens of turnovers). In the last two, they've averaged 68.5, with Turgeon saying they want to run even more. I'm guessing the 71 they had against Albany will be more or less the target from here on out, which is about where Maryland was in both of the last two seasons.

I love me a good up-tempo basketball team, so that's good news for me. Turgeon seems to have a preference for a quick tempo, so it'll be interesting to see A) how effective it is in the ACC; and B) just how much he sticks to his guns against tougher opposition.

Terrell Stoglin can be just as effective off the ball as he is on it. I take care, here, to say "can" instead of "is." We saw him struggle a bit (by his standards) against Radford, which was Howard's first game back. He finished with only 15 points on 5-18 shooting, including 2-6 from beyond the arc. Save the Alabama disaster, it was pretty easily his worst turnout of the season.

But for now, I'm willing to chalk that up to growing pains. In the two games since that performance, he's been as good as I've seen him this season, with the possible exception of the Notre Dame game. He poured in 22 points against Albany on 16 shots; then he had 24 yesterday on only 13 attempts. (And for good measure, he had only 2 free throw attempts in both of those games, so his shot attempts aren't simply being hidden by fouls.) He's forcing the matter and shooting the ball much less, but his output has remained pretty similar. In that sense, he's been much more effective in the last two games since having moved off the ball.

Oh, and he's also playing fewer minutes; only 29 against Albany and just 24 against Samford, which was good for a point a minute, for the math majors out there. So maybe he's not just a pure volume scorer.

If you were to chalk the improvement up to one thing, it'd surely be his three-point shooting. He drained six threes in both of the last two games, despite not really having a reputation as a lights-out shooter and certainly not as a catch-and-shoot maestro. But that's more or less what he's been in the last two contests: he's found open spots on the floor, and knocked down the open shots he's had. I always thought he needed to have the ball in his hands to be most effective, but if this is truly him, then it seems he can be just as effective, if not even more so, with someone else dominating the rock.

(Now, it does worry me a bit that he's had such a drastic uptick in shooting, because this historically hasn't been his skillset. There's a chance it was just hidden; there's also a chance that he's a bit streaky and is just on a good streak right now. If that's the case, a letdown could be coming. But I'll be optimistic for the moment and say this really is Stoglin.)

The other obvious thing you could point to in regards to Stoglin's improvement is that he's working with a true 1 in Howard, thus freeing himself from point guard duties and letting him look only for his own shot. I'm not sure he was ever looking for anyone's shot but his own, but it does seem like Howard's presence has helped him out by letting him get some higher-probability looks.

I decided to take a look at how Stoglin got his points, particularly in regards to how "within the offense" it was - that is, on how many of his points were from an assist. It's a crude method, I understand, particularly with free throws counting, but:

In his first nine games (before Pe'Shon Howard returned to the lineup), 32 of Stoglin's 200 points came from an assist. In the last three games, 32 of his 61 points came from an assist.

Yes, you read it right: Stoglin's scored as many points from assists in the last three games as he did in the previous nine. Of course, the rates have an astronomical difference: 16% of his points came from assists in the first nine games, a number that rises to 52% in the last three.

It's important to note that a big reason for this is that he's getting to the line less and taking more three-pointers, which by their nature tend to be more likely to be assisted on. But still, it's pretty obvious that Stoglin is less concerned about forcing the issue and more focused on letting the game come to him, at least right now. We'll have to keep a close eye on that, because I expect the rates to come back to earth, but it's clear the effect Howard has on the offense, Stoglin in particular. Fun stats.

Pe'Shon Howard and Alex Len have made Maryland's offense much, much better. Another slightly "duh" thing, but it's really remarkable how much better this team is with the addition of only two guys. Their offensive efficiency rating has risen from an average of 105 to an average of 114 since Howard's return (numbers for comparison); assist percentage, as you might've expected from the Stoglin numbers, has gone from 42% to 61%; eFG% from 47% to 52% - and that has raised even more when you start counting from the return of Len, who can anchor the middle and help spread out the offense; the eFG% since he's returned is at 59%.

Again, it's very worth mentioning some points here: first off that the quality of opponents isn't great, secondly that they have no film on what Maryland can bring now, and third that it's only been two or three games. The first charge can be answered - the increases are still there even if you only count stats against low-majors, so the Alabama and Iona debacles aren't dragging things down; in some cases, the differences are even more drastic - but the other two points are valid. They're the big reasons you should remember to throw a grain of salt on everything here, but it still seems a fair assessment that Maryland's offense is a much more efficient and effective unit with Howard and Len on the floor. We knew they'd be better, but I have to say I didn't think they'd improve as much as they have.

Alex Len is as good as advertised - better, maybe. We knew very little about Len before he took the floor against Albany. We knew he was 7-1. We thought he was at least a little athletic and decently coordinated. And we knew he was Ukrainian. That was about it.

Well, he's certainly 7-1, and he's actually very athletic and coordinated. He runs the floor very well, and has enough athleticism and coordination to throw down slams, whether on the break or even catching alley-oops in the half-court. Oh, and he has good hands, works really hard on the glass, and has even flashed a mid-range jumper.

That combination of raw tools alone, even considering his apparent lack of strength and how unproven he is against other top-flight big men, would be enough for most to consider him one of the better freshman in the country. It's certainly enough for me. He'll probably struggle a bit for the rest of the year, both with some fundamentals (offensive goaltending, for example) and when faced with the best froncourts in the ACC. That's to be expected, though; he has bags of potential and should be a difference-maker even just this year.

It's foolish to try to judge too much too early in someone's career. So I don't want to judge too much about Len having only seen him play in two games; we know that he has a ton of potential, and that's really enough for me right now.

But because this discussion has dominated talk around here in recent days, I thought I'd try to see just how well or poorly Len compares to other top-flight big men. I haven't been able to watch every highly-regarded big man with my own eyes, so I can't use that, but I can at least look at stats from most highly-regarded big men. Stats can be misleading, I know, but it's the best we have. And to keep things even, let's look at only their first two games against non-high major teams.


Alex Len: better than Andre Drummond.

Of course, who knows if he's actually better or worse than some of these guys - two games is hardly a fair sample size. It's tough to compare Len to, say, Rakeem Chrismas or James McAdoo, who are on much better teams and thus can't get anywhere near Len's minutes; it's also tough to do it with someone like Kyle Wiltjer, who didn't look great against mid-majors but dropped 17 against Penn State. This is what we have, so I'll give it to you, but remember to measure how much you try to draw out of it.

Still: with the exceptions of Anthony Davis and Quincy Miller (who's more a 3 than a 4, but I'll include him as a face-up 4), he had probably the best opening two games of the bunch. We'll see if he's similarly good against better competition, but if he's Cody Zeller-good, well, that's pretty fantastic for Maryland.

Is Nick Faust hitting his stride? It's way too early to say so for sure, but he's certainly looked much better since Pe'Shon Howard came back to the lineup and let him come off the bench at his more-natural 3 spot. Over the past three games, he's had 20 points on a respectable 12-26 (3-7) with 10 assists and only one turnover.

That's ... well, for a sixth man, that's actually darn good. Faust does look more comfortable at the 3, not necessarily as a catch-and-shoot sniper (though he did do that a bit against Samford) but as an all-around small forward. He has the ability to do a lot well, including passing - averaging more than 3 assists per game at the 3, which is what he's done since moving off the point, is fantastic. But his shooting will probably make or break him; he looked great in that department against Samford, and in fact that was probably what most were expecting out of him right away

Even before the Samford game, I thought he looked much better coming off the bench at the 3. His comfort level and activity were much better even just against Radford, even though his shooting wasn't back yet; if he can get his stroke going, he has great potential off the bench for the rest of the year. It looks like he's getting his swagger and confidence back, both in his all-around game and his jumper in particular.

Other assorted thoughts: Free throw shooting isn't yet fixed. Maryland is fourth in the country (second in the ACC behind only Duke) in getting to the free throw line, but they shot only 64% from the stripe since Howard's return. That's in line with their season average, which is dead last in the ACC and one of the worst marks in the country. ... Mychal Parker looks less scary by the minute with the ball in his hands. Progress. ... Sean Mosley's average in the last three games? 5.3 points per game. He continues to involve himself in many different ways, but he's still not scoring at the rate I think most would've liked. ... I was wondering where most of Alex Len's minutes would come from. Berend Weijs has lost a few, as has Ashton Pankey, but I was really surprised to see James Padgett lose the most time, starting out on the bench against Albany before getting only 15 minutes of burn against Samford. Strange choice.

I don't know how much better Maryland is, or how good they can be. But I'm encouraged. I ended the Samford post with a similar sentiment: the Terrapins used to be fighting for the lives against Mt. St. Mary's, and now they're coasting to victory against teams of a similar quality. Yes, you could say that they've really only gotten to where they should've already been, but it's still a good feeling. And remember that many ACC teams have actually performed worse out-of-conference - Clemson's dropped games to Coastal Carolina and Hawaii, Florida State just lost to Princeton at home (and scored only 10 points in the first half!), and even everyone's new favorite darling Virginia boasts a loss to TCU and a near-loss to the worst team in the country (Towson).

All things considered, I'm giddy at being 9-3 right now. I don't think this is an NCAA tournament team, but I'm no longer resigned to finishing in the ACC basement. With the way Maryland is starting to play, it's possible that this is a mid-pack ACC team with the NIT as a very real possibility. Given my expectations before the season, I'd take that every day of the week and twice on Sunday.