I was going to start this post with a short monologue about how much I dislike N.C. State and how the Wolfpack are increasingly a legitimate rival of Maryland on both the hardwood and the gridiron.
Then I remembered that rivalries are best when both teams actually win sometimes. So, uh, maybe "rivalry" isn't a great word for this contest.
Although there is a fair amount of mutual hatred between the fanbases, Maryland-State has been a pretty one-sided contest in recent years. The Terrapins haven't lost to the Wuffies since February of 2006, when State edged a four-point win in Raleigh. Maryland has won the last nine contests, including both of last year's games. (Maryland's lost to Boston College seven times since then. No, really.) A win over N.C. State on Sunday would give the Terps ten straight, a pretty great run of dominance.
Of course, there's also another, perhaps more important storyline to follow: Sunday's game also marks the beginning of the ACC schedule. Oh, and it's also Maryland's biggest test since they've reached full-strength with the additions of Pe'Shon Howard and Alex Len. Oh, and it's also the fifth incarnation of the Gary-Yow Bowl, which Maryland has taken 3-1 so far. (You can thank Rockin' Randy for the sole defeat.)
So yeah, it's a fairly substantial matchup. Are you excited? Because I'm excited.
Things tip off in the RBC Center in Raleigh on Sunday at 6:00, with ESPNU as the broadcast. Maryland will almost certainly enter as pretty hefty underdogs, and with good reason: the Pack have been a pretty solid team this year. Mark Gottfried, like 98% of the general populace, is a better coach than Sid Lowe, and it's showed: State will likely enter the game 11-4 and riding a five-game win streak, assuming they take care of Delaware St. tonight. Three of those losses, by the way, came against top-30 RPI opponents, and the fourth came against 12-2 Stanford, which is ranked #32 in KenPom.
It won't be easy. Do it for Gary?
I'm sure you've heard that N.C. State is under new management in Gottfried, the former Alabama head man who resigned from the Crimson Tide gig after a disastrous stretch in 2009. As alluded to above, he's done a solid job this year: State is a perfectly respectable 10-4 at the time I publish this post, with no embarrassing losses and an impressive resumé win over Texas that should help out come March. Like Maryland, they've just run through a bunch of middling mid-majors, having won four straight with the fifth likely on the way tonight. Both teams, assuming they don't lay an egg tonight, will come into the contest feeling pretty good about themselves.
Gottfried, thanks to the recruiting ability of El Sid, inherited a pretty full cupboard. I don't think there's a star on State's roster, at least not yet, but they have to have some of the best balance in the country: each player on their starting five is averaging between 12.2 and 12.9 points per game. It's very, very strange, but indicative of the quality on this roster (sort of makes you wonder how Sid did so poorly).
Perhaps the team's most important cog is 6-5 sophomore combo guard Lorenzo Brown. He's leading the team in minutes played and has been handling point guard duties this season in the wake of Ryan Harrow's transfer to Kentucky. Brown's actually been really impressive this year, and would at least be in the argument for best guard in the ACC with his numbers: he's the team's leading scorer with 12.9 ppg and throws in 4.7 boards plus second-in-the-ACC 6.7 assists. And he's only averaging three turnovers per game, which isn't a bad number considering how much he handles the ball. (Less than Pe'Shon Howard.) He's not a sniper and will do more of his damage off the dribble; it'll be interesting to see how Maryland handles him.
Actually, one of the really interesting things about this game will be how Maryland handles State's backcourt height. Brown at the 1 is 6-5, and the 2 is C.J. Williams, who's also 6-5. Scott Wood at the 3 is 6-6. Let's face it: Sean Mosley can only guard one of them. Pe'Shon Howard is a good enough on-ball defender for me to not worry too much about giving up three inches or so, but this means that if Terrell Stoglin starts, Maryland's historically worst defender will be covering someone at least five inches taller than him. Yikes.
In fact, I wonder if Mark Turgeon might consider starting Stoglin off on the bench and putting in Nick Faust instead, who could handle Williams or Wood assuming Turgeon wants either Pe' or Mosley on Brown. Ultimately I don't think the offense could handle that, but it was worth a passing thought.
The other big personnel concern for Maryland with the Wolfpack is the quality of their frontcourt, which should be a fascinating battle. I'm not enamored with C.J. Leslie's production given the potential he has, but he's still one of the better 4 men in the ACC, averaging 12.9 points and 6 boards a game (plus two blocks). He's paired with Richard Howell, a consistently underrated player who's just shy of averaging a double-double (12.2 points and 9.7 boards).
Alex Len is playing well, and both James Padgett and Ashton Pankey are respectable 4s, but State probably has the advantage here. They're actually one of the best rebounding teams in the country, and if they win the boards by a substantial margin there could be some problems. I'm also intrigued to see how they handle Len; Howell is only 6-8, as is Leslie. DeShawn Painter, the first big off the bench, is 6-9. Will they give 7-footer Jordan Vanderberg more than his season average 10 minutes, perhaps sacrificing the rest of their game in doing so? I don't know. If we've learned anything from the past few games, though, it's that Len needs his touches.
Back to State: they actually hae one of the best offenses in the country, as you might have guessed based on the top-to-bottom scoring balance - 25th in the country in the raw efficiency numbers, third in the ACC. They shoot the ball well, all up and down the lineup, whether it's Howell getting some easy looks inside, Williams in the mid-range, or Wood from outside; Wood, in fact, is a real sniper, leading the ACC in 3pt shooting %. It'll be important to keep an eye on him at all times and make sure he doesn't find himself free too much. (The good news is that he basically does nothing else.) They rarely turn the ball over, and are even the second-best offensive rebounding team in the conference, barely edging out the Terrapins and just behind UNC.
For all of the talk about how much good defense was expected out of Maryland this year, they've really been pretty middling. Strides have been made and we haven't seen anyone go H.A.M. from deep that wasn't supposed to, but they're still not where they need to be. Between State's above-average execution, good offensive talent, and impressive effective height, they'll pose a pretty big challenge. It has the potential to be a real watershed game for Turgeon and Maryland's defensive efforts, either good or bad.
Defensively, State isn't nearly as imposing. In fact, with the Terrapins' own offense clicking lately with the additions of Alex Len and Pe'Shon Howard, there could be quite a few points in this one. They're one of the worst perimeter defending teams in the country, at 309th nationally and 38%. They gave up 9-14 shooting from three to Campbell in a home near-loss, 9-19 in another grinder to Princeton, and 7-13 in their loss to Indiana. In short, they're vulnerable from deep, especially if Maryland can run sets to get open looks to Terrell Stoglin. Other guys will get their looks, and it'll be paramount for guys like Faust (unlikely, I know) and Mosley to be feeling it.
The other big thing will be getting touches to Len; I touched on that earlier, but I feel the need to harp on it. I'd guess Howell would be the guy and his girth could pose a problem, but Len isn't a big softie. If Howell can't consistently muscle Len off the block down low, that'll be a big advantage for the Terrapins, and they need to go back to the well. Even if Vanderberg is forced onto the floor, that would give Maryland a decided advantage in skill and perhaps force Leslie or Wood off the court. That's what's so great about having a legitimate big man like this: he can change the paradigm simply by being big, with Maryland dictating to their opposition instead of the other way around. Of course, he actually needs to be able to hold his own on the block for that to happen, but if it does it's a big advantage.
As far as tempo goes, I wouldn't expect it to be a significant issue. State is a fast team but no faster than the majority of the ACC, and they only go about nine-deep on a regular basis, so Maryland should be just as fresh as the Wuffies. That said, their backcourt is actually quite thin; the backup point guard is Alex Johnson, a transfer from Cal State-Bakersfield, but he's really the only true guard off the bench. Tyler Harris can play some two if he has to, but he's not a natural there. Maryland isn't in a much better spot - Faust is really the only guard off the bench - but things seem pretty even roster-wise.
I'm actually of the opinion that State is probably the third-best team in the ACC. I'm not solid in that thought - Virginia will give them a run, but I think the Hoos aren't quite as good as a few of their early results - but they certainly have a lot of high-level talent and have looked more or less solid all year. A road game against a strong ACC team is always going to be a tall task, and it'll be one for Maryland on Sunday. But it is possible to pull off, particularly with N.C. State's iffy defense so far this year.
If you're thinking this preview is a bit dinky compared to most, you're right. But because this is the first ACC game, we'll be having a lot more on it as the week goes by. Can't give you everything at once. If you've been here awhile, you'll remember that for ACC games, most first game previews were more pure-stat, basic-overview type of deals, with more stuff coming later. That's what this is.