The last time Maryland played UConn in basketball, it was at a neutral site, in the state of New York, 11 years ago. But the stakes in that game were just a bit higher, as the Terps battled and fought to a 90-82 win over the Huskies in the regional finals of the 2002 NCAA tournament, securing Maryland's second consecutive Final Four berth and eventually winning the school's first National Championship.
Tonight's matchup with the Huskies will be played at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, not the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, and no long are legendary head coaches Gary Williams and Jim Calhoun roaming the sidelines for their respective teams. Instead, tonight's game between Maryland and Connecticut features two coaches who are working to emerge from the shadow of their predecessor, forge their own identify, and get their teams back to the NCAA tournament.
For UConn, the word that best describes this team is experience. It all starts in the backcourt with guards Shabazz Napier (Sr, 17.1 ppg, 4.6 apg, 4.4 rpg) and Ryan Boatright (Jr., 15.4 ppg, 4,4 apg, 2.9 rpg). Both had great seasons last year and decided to return to school and not test the NBA waters and both could present problems for Maryland on Friday. Napier lead the Huskies and was 8th in the Big East in steal percentage last season (#steals/defensive possessions), according to Kenpom.com. Napier also had one of the Big East's best eFG% at 54.4% last season while Boatright's was 49%. They're not the tallest guards in the world, but they're both quick and do a great job getting to the basket to score. Additionally, UConn has sophomore Omar Calhoun, who can give the Huskies a size boost at guard when he's on the court (he's 6'6"), but he can and will often move over to the 3-spot, which he did a lot of last season. We'll discuss him more in the frontcourt portion.
Maryland, however, will have a distinct size advantage over the Huskies at the guard position, countering with Dez Wells (6'5"), Nick Faust (6'6"), and Roddy Peters (6'3"). Additionally, while Wells averaged less points per game last year, his eFG% was 55.8%, good enough for 9th best in a much more talented ACC. Faust checks in with a eFG% of 47.5% which is slightly behind that of Boatright's 49%.
Advantage: UConn, but not by as much as most would think. If Seth Allen was playing, this might be a push but because freshman Roddy Peters will have to play significant minutes, the edge goes to the Huskies.
UConn again has a lot of experienced frontcourt players, led by junior DeAndre Daniels (6'9", 190), who averaged 12.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg, and 1.5 bpg and had a 50.3 eFG% last season. Omar Calhoun, who was mentioned briefly above, averaged 11.1 ppg, 3.9 rpg, and 1.3 apg during his sophomore season last year and finished with a 49 eFG%. Senior center/forward Tyler Olander (6'10", 230 lbs) is UConn's five starter, a big body in the middle who wasn't much of an offensive threat last season (4.3 ppg), but can protect the rim, averaging just under a block per game while pulling down 3.7 rpg. KenPom did not have an eFG% listed for Olander.
Rebounding was definitely an issue for UConn last year, as the Huskies averaged just 33.3 rpg, which was 13th in the 15 team Big East. In terms of their OR% (#offensive rebounds/(OR+DR)), Olander checked in at 7% last year, while Daniels' was 5.7% and Calhoun's was 5.2%. On the DR% (the percentage of possible defensive rebounds a player gets), Daniels had a team high 15.8%, Olander at 12.9% and Calhoun at 9.1%.
UConn also adds in highly touted forward Kentan Facey, a consensus 4-star player from New York who checks in at 6'8" and was recently cleared to play by the NCAA. But how much he will contribute immediately remains to be seen. They also added 7 footer Amida Brimah, who is surprisingly athletic and could cause some havoc near the basket on the defensive end. They also have Niels Giffey, who according to The UConn Blog, is Mr. Hustle/Glue Guy.
Maryland on the other hand, was very good at rebounding last season, finishing atop the ACC with 40.8 rpg. But a large part of that was accomplished by the now departed Alex Len, who declared for the NBA draft. Len had an offensive rebounding percentage of 13.2% last year, the second highest percentage in the ACC, as well as a defensive rebounding percentage of 19.3%. Maryland will need to reply heavily on Michigan transfer Evan Smotrycz, along with Charles Mitchell, Shaq Cleare and Damonte Dodd, to make up for the loss of Len's production last season. Sophomore Jake Layman should also be able to help in that category, as he was second on the team in offensive rebounding percentage at 5.6% last year. But don't look past two additional players who could help Maryland on the offensive glass; Nick Faust (3.8%) and Dez Wells (3.7%) were third and forth on the team, respectively, in OR% last season.
Maryland's biggest advantage, which will likely hold true throughout the season, is having both Jake Layman and Evan Smotrycz on the court at the same time. Layman's outside shot, which has been on full display this summer, has become so smooth. He's also oozing with confidence while on the court, which seems to have translated into more consistent play for him. Smotrycz has shown that he can do a little of everything on the court; score, draw contact, get to the rim, hit the long shot and dish out assists. He really stabilizes the four position for Maryland and with the combined three point threat that he and Layman possess, teams, especially ones like UConn, are going to find it hard to stop them.
Maryland also has Shaq Cleare and Charles Mitchell, both of which have strengths and weaknesses, but should make solid contributions defensively (Cleare) and scoring and rebounding inside (Mitchell).
UConn and Maryland are two teams with a lot of potential, but with strengths in different areas. UConn relies on their quick and experienced guards while the Terps have an overall size advantage and distinct front court advantage. For Maryland, it comes down to whether they can exploit their front court advantage while limiting turnovers. For UConn, it boils down to whether their guards can force Maryland into turnovers and whether their frontcourt can get going on the glass. It should be a close game, but Jake Layman and Evan Smotrycz prove to be too much for UConn. Terps win, 73-67.