Tough loss last night, but we knew well before this season started that Maryland was going to have to endure some very difficult losses. What's much more important than avoiding those losses - something that's, frankly, impossible with Maryland's roster makeup - is how the Terrapins bounce back. It's something they've done well all year; they're still yet to lose two in a row.
Then again, they've never lost a game and then walked into a situation just as difficult, if not even more imposing. That's what they're facing now, as next on the slate is a trip to Philadelphia and the famed Palestra to face off with Temple.
The Owls provide a critical opportunity for Maryland: a chance to get a road win against a high-major opponent likely bound for the NCAA Tournament. Colorado and Notre Dame, while decent victories, both look like they're heading for the NIT; Temple, while still on the bubble, has a much better shot at finding the tourney. And if Maryland still harbors similar hopes (I'm not necessarily saying they should, but if they do), a win here would be sublime.
It's also shaping up to be a particularly difficult opportunity. Temple is 11-5 on the year and a top 25 team in RPI, with wins over Villanova, underrated Wichita St. and St. Louis teams, and, yes, Duke, whom they beat by 5 in Philly a week-and-a-half ago. That's a mighty impressive resumé, at least if you only look at the good column.
The good news if you're Maryland is that the Owls have started to come back to earth in recent weeks: they lost double-digit games to Dayton and Richmond over the past week, starting off the A-10 slate 1-2 with only the St. Louis road victory salvaging an potentially embarrassing beginning. They play LaSalle tonight, and I'll update with any revelations gleaned from that game, but the point here is that Temple isn't unbeatable; Dayton and Richmond aren't particularly great teams, and their inability to deal with those two is an encouraging sign.
We'll get into some of the flaws showcased in those losses a little bit later. For now, let's do a quick overview of the Owls' roster. The obvious thing that jumps out is that they're as guard-oriented a team as there is in the country: the three best players on the team are probably Ramone Moore, a 6-4 senior averaging 17 points, 4 boards, and 3 assists per game; Khalif Wyatt, a 6-4 junior averaging 16.7 points per game and shooting 43% from three; and the team's de facto point guard, Juan Fernandez, a (you guessed it) 6-4 senior putting up 11 points and 4 assists per game. That's a very good lineup 1 through 3, but Maryland's guards are their own strength, and I'd certainly rather have it this way than a loaded frontcourt (say, FSU) doing damage on James Padgett and Alex Len.
Speaking of the frontcourt, Temple's is a bit ... patchwork. Michael Eric, a 6-11 senior expected to man the 5, played only four games before injuring his patella and sitting for two months. He might return to action tonight against LaSalle, and is likely to play against Maryland, but doubtfully at a high level. In his place, they've been relying on Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson, a 6-6 scrapper at the 4, and 6-9 redshirt freshman Anthony Lee.
Hollis-Jefferson, who's second in the team in minutes played, was going to start at the 4 and still will, which is an area Maryland will likely try to exploit size-wise; Lee, on the other hand, has been forced into emergency duty. He's long and athletic but lacks bulk and refinement, so if he's on the court much against Alex Len the Ukrainian should finally have a battle he can win in both of those departments. Eric is a scarier proposition in that regard, but there's a good chance he'll still be shaky with injury. Past that there's pretty minimal frontcourt depth, so getting one of them in foul trouble will either force a less-talented player into the game or force Fran Dunphy to go small.
Offensively, they're predictably perimeter-oriented, with top-100 marks in eFG%, 3-pt shooting %, and turnover %. In other words, they shoot well, in some cases very well, and take care of the ball, with very few turnovers. Wyatt is the real sniper from deep, but Moore and (historically) Fernandez are good shooters, as is sixth-man sophomore Aaron Brown. This will be a real test for Maryland's perimeter defense, which has been improving but clearly still isn't up to snuff. Poor close-outs or lazy rotation will get them burned.
Conversely, they're much less effective at rebounding and getting to the free throw line. This can lead to some pretty big offensive slowdowns if the defense on the big three guards is good enough. Rebounding especially will be a key here: we saw Maryland play pretty good half-court defense against FSU only to squander it all with poor rebounding. That was understandable, given FSU's height; I won't expect the same out of Saturday's game, and if it happens there are much bigger problems in Maryland's frontcourt than expected.
Things get a little strange now, at least for a Fran Dunphy-coached team. For one, they're not a particularly great defensive team, which has long been a Dunphy hallmark: their defensive effective FG% is a middling 198th, their turnover percentage is a head-scratching 241st, and their defensive rebounding % is among the worst in the conference. They're not even particularly disciplined, at 176th in FT rate. Just about the only thing they've done well defensively is defend the perimeter, limiting opponents to 30% shooting from three, good for 41st in the country. But that's counteracted by their greater-than-50% percentage from inside the arc, plus their proclivity for fouling.
Much of that is attributable to their size, of course. Their power forward is 6-6 and their center has been a raw 6-9 redshirt freshman; it's not like this is a really imposing frontcourt. Teams can go inside against them and have success pretty easily, and that's certainly been the idea for many. That might fix itself with the return of Eric; it might not. Maryland's frontcourt, which was largely held in check against FSU, will have to have a big bounce-back game, because while Terrell Stoglin will probably get his, as usual, I don't think it'll be as efficient as we're used to. Then again, I didn't think that against FSU, either, but he was great until the rest of the team fell apart.
The other non-Dunphyian(?) aspect of this team has been its pace, which is bafflingly quick. Temple has historically been a very slow team - last year they averaged 66 possessions per game, and the year before only 62. This year? They're at 70, which is 68th-fastest in the country (they were in the 200s and 300s the past two years). This despite functioning for most of the year with a lineup that goes eight-deep at most, has only two frontcourt players, and regularly plays three or four guys upwards of 30 minutes. They had 83(!) possessions against Buffalo earlier in the year, and then 75 against Dayton. Don't ask me why. I expect they'll slow it down against Maryland, because the Terrapins would gladly run them out of the gym, but we'll have to see.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Temple is the recent disparity in results, which is FSU-lite: they went from beating Duke by five to losing to Dayton by 10; then they beat St. Louis on the road again by five, before dropping a game to Richmond by 11. So I'm guessing they'll either beat LaSalle tonight by five or lose by 12. That seems to be the pattern.
Anyway, these results are actually the exact opposite of what you would've predicted: Duke is obviously a crazy difficult team to beat, and St. Louis has been quietly very good all year long - they easily defeated Washington, Villanova, and Oklahoma early in the season. Dayton has been much more inconsistent, while Richmond had basically just been straight-up bad. It's a very puzzling stretch.
It's also a nice little self-contained case study if you're Maryland. One area you can look at is three-point shooting: in the two victories, Temple shot 58% from deep; in the two losses, it was only 37%. That's a bit problematic when you take 23 a game, as they did in those two contests. Three-pointers took up 40% of their attempts against Dayton and a third of their attempts against Richmond, as compared to about 15% in their two wins. Not sure how much you can draw out of that, but I found it to be statistically striking.
You can also look at how their big three performed. It's clear that you're probably not going to stop all three - Wyatt in particular has been absolutely on fire over the past four games. But the other two had so-so games against Dayton and Richmond: in both of those losses, only one of the big three shot above 50% from the field; in both of the wins, two two were at or above 50%. That makes enough sense, and is in fact pretty obvious (gameplan: stop their big scorers!) but is still fairly important.
Another area of drastic difference is in free throws: in the two recent losses, they allowed 43 free throw attempts, which were converted at an 80% rate. In the two big wins, they allowed 30 attempts, converted at a 66% rate. Things like defensive FG%, turnover margin, and rebounding margin were pretty consistent across all four performances; that was probably the biggest defensive outlier. So if you're Maryland, this reinforces what they should've already been thinking: attack. Try to get inside and around the basket. Feed James Padgett. Feed Alex Len.
We'll have more on this throughout the week, hopefully able to wrangle up an enemy blogger for a Q&A with perhaps a few other little feature-y things. The game is on Saturday, tipping at 11:00 AM(!) on ESPNU. Just curious: given that the Palestra is supposedly a little slice of basketball heaven, how many are making the trip up to Philly to see this one?