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Heading Into ACC Play, Maryland's Expectations Are ... Muddled

If it's been said once, it's been said a million times: we have no idea what this Maryland Terrapins team can accomplish, mostly because we have no idea who these Maryland Terrapins are.

It's a common and popular sentiment among Terp fans, and with good reason. You have to expect pretty volatile things when a team receives reinforcements to the tune of 40% of its starting lineup and about 10% of its on-scholarship team, which is what Maryland experienced only about two weeks before the ACC season tipped off.

Almost everything about these Terps is different when compared to the side that we saw earlier in the year: the tempo is faster, the positions have changed, the offense is modified, and they're generally better. Much, much better.

You can see that much with the naked eye: Pe'Shon Howard gives Mark Turgeon a true point guard who can get Maryland into sets in their halfcourt offense, while he also has helped Terrell Stoglin to be more efficient and allowed Nick Faust to his more natural 3 spot. Meanwhile, Alex Len is a monstrous presence on both ends of the floor, and is already much more developed than I think anyone expected.

It shows up in the statbook, too. Let's look at a few examples of numbers increases - and, for the record, the "before" stats only include mid-major games, so the less-impressive performances against Alabama and Iona don't drag down the numbers and create false contrasts. Now:

- Assist-to-turnover ratio: before Pe'Shon Howard, it was at .81. Since Howard's return, it's up to 1.12.
- Rebounding margin: before the debut of Alex Len, Maryland was out-rebounding opponents at a margin of +2.8 per game. Since, that figure has risen to +15.3 per game.
- eFG%: before Len came in, got easy buckets, and stretched the floor for Maryland's shooters, it was at 46%. Since, it's risen to 56%.
- Assist%: before Howard, 44.8% of Maryland's baskets were assisted upon. Since, 61.7%.
- Defensive rebounding%: pre-Len, Maryland grabbed 64% of available defensive rebounds; post-Len, 77%.

And that's only a small sampling. I could go on (and have the spreadsheet to prove it).

But we knew Maryland would be better. How could they not be? The real question here - and, unfortunately, the currently unanswerable one - is how much better, and how much better against ACC competition?

We've only seen the Terrapins at full-force for three games, all of them coming against mid-major competition. To be sure, Maryland looks a lot better against those mid-majors than they looked against other mid-majors before the additions, but how sustained will those increases be against the Dukes, UNCs, and more importantly N.C. States and Virginias of the world? We really have no idea. At least I don't.

And so, for the first time in quite awhile, I have basically no expectations going into the ACC schedule. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see this team round into form beautifully, cause a few upsets, go 8-8 or 9-7 and sneak itself onto the NCAA Tournament bubble. I also wouldn't be surprised to find out that these advances weren't sustained and see them fall to 5-11 (or, gulp, even less).

There are simply too many variables. We can assign a ceiling based on raw talent and inexperience, as I don't think any team lacking elite talent and deep experience can, say, make a run at the top third of the ACC. And we can assign a floor on the same metrics, as I think a team with Terrell Stoglin and Alex Len is too good to be at the very bottom, either. But everything in-between is fair game.

Can Alex Len keep averaging 14 and 8 against ACC-level competition? Will Terrell Stoglin keep dropping 20-something a game despite teams focusing in on him? Can Nick Faust round into form? Will Sean Mosley provide clutch buckets when they need them?

These are all crucial questions to try to assess where Maryland would ultimately fall in the big scheme of things, but they're basically impossible to answer right now. After all: we've only seen three games of Len, all of which came against iffy opposition; Stoglin's never night-in-night-out faced the level of defensive talent and gameplanning he'll see in the ACC; Faust is still young; and Mosley, well, that's probably a "no," but people change.

I have my guesses on those matters (no, yes, a little, sometimes), but they're little more than uneducated stabs in the dark. Fact is, Maryland is basically a walking unknown quantity. And I'm just fine with that. We'll learn a lot about this team as things go forward, and I'm happy to be along for the ride. I've been saying this for quite some time now, but this season is a building year, and anything over 4-12 is more or less gravy to me.

My hopes are higher than that, as are my predictions. But my expectations? No. At least, not yet.

If I had to hazard a guess about this team's future, I'd characterize myself as cautiously optimistic: I do see a lot of talent in place and a relatively high, even NCAA-level, ceiling. I also see a team being asked to start its conference schedule after basically four games together at full speed, and that will likely cause for some early bumps in the road. I'd bet money on Maryland knocking off at least one opponent they shouldn't, and I'd think their penchant for battling out close games will come in handy, too. And I'd also guess that their shooting issues, both from beyond-the-arc and at the stripe, will limit their ceiling against otherwise beatable foes.

All things told, my prediction would probably be a 6-10 or 7-9 ACC slate. But will I be unhappy if they don't reach that number? Eh, not really, and certainly not if the performances and recruiting don't warrant serious worry.

With the ACC season starting off tomorrow, I turn things over to you: what are your expectations for Maryland's ACC (and one non-conference) schedule? Or are you like me, and you're really just along for the ride? Anyone willing to hazard predictions? We have all day to do this, people.