Where + When: 7:00 at the Comcast Center, College Park, Md.
Where to Watch: ESPN2.
Lines: Vegas: Maryland -11 KenPom: Maryland by 12
Motivation. That's the big question for Maryland: a few days ago they were playing UNC in Greensboro for the potential right to play in the NCAAs; now they're back in College Park for the NIT, playing a program most of the team probably didn't know even existed. Big, traditional "name" programs like Maryland often struggle in the NIT; the Terps themselves have historically had issues with it, famously dropping the opener to Manhattan in 2006 and getting blown out by Syracuse in the second round the last time they were in the tourney. Mark Turgeon seems genuinely pleased to have the opportunity to play more games, but if they're going to be meaningful he's going to have to ensure that his guys are ready to go.
Running out of steam? There's something of a debate on whether or not fatigue is a legitimate problem in college basketball; I'm of the opinion that it is, given how physically and especially mentally draining the game can be, but then again it's just 20-somethings playing 30 minutes of basketball or so. Regardless of where you fall on it, if there is a fatigue problem Maryland's in a dangerous place; they played on the road on last Sunday, then four days later played three games in three days in Greensboro, the latter two of which required intense mental and physical commitment. Now they play a Tuesday game - which is early for midweek, and as early as a team would return from a Saturday game. This is five games in ten days, and it's relatively backloaded at that.
On the flip side of that, the last time Niagara's been out of action for over a week, last playing in their loss to Iona on the 10th. Maryland might be leggy; the Purple Eagles will likely be a bit rusty. Sloppiness is probably to be expected on both sides.
Familiar faces. One of Niagara's leaders is 6-3 sophomore guard Juan'ya Green, who's fourth in the country in minutes played and is averaging 16.8 a game for the Purple Eagles (down a bit from the 17.7 he put up as a freshman). Green actually had an offer from Maryland back in the day, until he got injured and his big name schools backed off. He was never particularly close to attending College Park, if memory serves, but he was an "on the radar" type of name; rarely do you run back into those types down the line. He's not the only name you might recognize: coach Joe Mihalich is from D.C. and got his coaching start at DeMatha back in the late 70s, and reserve guard Malcolm Lemmons is another D.C. native who attended Gonzaga.
The Opponent (An Overview)
Niagara won the regular season MAAC championship this year, just nipping Loyola at 13-5 in conference play and finishing 19-13 overall. They've only faced a handful of upper-level teams and have rarely given them runs; they were easily dealt with by Notre Dame in South Bend early in the year and were blown out by Bucknell and Oregon State, as well. Their best win is probably over Iona (though they lost the season series to the Gaels) or New Mexico State, and they do boast quite a few bad losses to the likes of Rider, Brown, Central Michigan, and Buffalo. But they did fair well in one of the better mid-major conferences (14th in both KenPom and RPI), and aren't pushovers.
If you're looking to compare Niagara to a team Maryland's already played this year, the answer's easy: North Carolina. In style of play, at least; naturally, the Purple Eagles lack Carolina's extraordinary talent. But the schematics Niagara's coach Joe Mihalich used seem right out of Ol' Roy's book: they're an athletic team of perimeter threats with a small lineup, who love to get out on the break, are all about execution and turnovers on both sides of the floor, and get most of their point production from two very good swingmen.
Niagara's five starters run 5-11, 6-3, 6-3, 6-6, and 6-8, though unlike the Heels they're not super-athletic and long, meaning they're particularly vulnerable when it comes to rebounding; teams like Bucknell and Notre Dame ripped them apart on the boards. They look to make up for that with a blazing tempo, at a solid 70 possessions per game, which isn't quite Carolinian but comes darn close. Again like Carolina, they help make up for the possessions by taking care of the ball - an astounding 12th nationally in TO% - and forcing turnovers on the other side of the floor, where they're 43rd nationally. Staying so efficient despite the quick pace is tough to do, and it's the mark of a well-drilled team. And both Green and fellow 6-3 sophomore Antoine Mason are fill-it-up scorers, not hugely efficient but able to put up a lot of points in a hurry; Green averages nearly 17 a game, and Mason goes for 18.5. Maryland's perimeter defenders will be challenged.
Obviously, though, there are plenty of weak spots for this type of team. First, they're not particularly efficient offensively in the halfcourt; if they don't get a fast break basket, their only real offensive options are getting fouled while slashing to the rim (particularly Green and Antoine Mason) or chucking a three-pointer - 37% of their attempted field goals are threes, 62nd nationally, despite the fact that they just don't shoot well from deep, at only 32%. No player on the team shoots even 40% from downtown; given the way Maryland harried Duke and UNC into awful shooting performances during the tourney, if Niagara comes into this willing to jack from distance they're in for some trouble. Play disciplined defense, and the Purple Eagles will likely struggle to do anything in the halfcourt. Avoid turning the ball over, and they have the chance to suffocate Niagara's offense entirely.
Likewise, the Terps will have plenty of opportunities both on the glass and on offense. Niagara is likely to either get a steal, give up a basket, or foul; they play aggressively to force a turnover but are liable to give up a look from deep or get exposed on the interior by their lack of height. This game will be critical from Pe`Shon Howard; Niagara force a lot of turnovers and build their offense off it to some degree, so Howard's ability to dictate tempo, handle the ball, and keep Maryland ticking over offensively will be tested and particularly important to the cause. If he's bad, it'll give the Purple Eagles a chance to stick around; if he's clinical, like he was when the Terps hosted Virginia Tech in the ACC opener, it could turn into a whitewash.
One more little added bonus for the Terps: Niagara's every bit as inexperienced as Maryland. Not that the NIT is traditionally an overwhelming moment, but it could prove to be for a young Niagara team on the road.
Expected Starting Fives
|Pe`Shon Howard (Jr., 6-3)||Marvin Jordan (Jr., 5-11)|
|Nick Faust (So., 6-6)||Juan’ya Green (So., 6-3)|
|Dez Wells (So., 6-5)||Antoine Mason (So., 6-3)|
|Jake Layman (Fr., 6-8)||Ameen Tanksley (So., 6-6)|
|Alex Len (So., 7-1)||Devon White (Sr., 6-8)|
I suspect that Turgeon will keep Layman at the 4, given how well going small worked for them in the tournament and the fact that the Purple Eagles will go with four guards themselves. This is my guess at Niagara's starting five, although there's a chance that injured 6-4 freshman Tahjere McCall will start over Jordan if he's healthy enough. Also, while White usually starts, T.J. Cline (also 6-8) will receive the lion's share of minutes at center.
Clearly Maryland has a substantial size advantage; they also run much deeper than Niagara, who really only go about seven deep if McCall is a no-go. They should be able to exploit both.
Matchup to Watch
While you could look at Pe`Shon Howard or Antoine Mason here, I'm more intrigued by Alex Len vs. Devon White and T.J. McCall. Len is going back to having not only a solid five inches of height on his opposition but also an advantage in raw talent, athleticism, and even strength. Niagara has some solid guard talent, but there's no one who can check Len if he deigns to actually show up; should that happen and we get Good Olexiy, the result is probably a foregone conclusion.
Unless a mentally tired Maryland team simply doesn't show up - a genuine possibility, unfortunately - this should be a fairly straightforward affair. That's not to undersell the Purple Eagles, either, who I think have the ability to pose some problems for the Terps; I've said a few times that Carolina was built to beat Maryland the same way the Terps were built to beat Duke, and while Niagara's not half as talented as the Heels they will pose some of the same issues. If Maryland comes out flat, unfocused, and tired, there's every chance that they'll be given a run in this game.
Call me crazy, but I don't think that happens. Maryland will possibly struggle early, like they did against Carolina, as they fight against mental fatigue and struggle to motivate themselves against weaker opposition. But this team looked like they were enjoying basketball, and that will kick in and some point and spark the Terps to a double digit win. It's an up-and-down, somewhat sloppy affair with possessions in the seventies, but a strong second half from Maryland leads them to a 78-65 win.