Where + When: 7:00 at the Comcast Center, College Park, Md.
Where to Watch: ESPN2. I presume Mike Patrick and LaPhonso Ellis will be on the call once again.
Lines: Vegas: Maryland -4 KenPom: Maryland by 1
Challenges. The NIT actually has the potential to be a really useful tool for Mark Turgeon and the Terps this year, as they're a young, progressing team that gets to test how far they've come against a field of not-bad-but-not-great teams. The opener against Niagara wasn't much of a game, nor all that much of a test; the Purple Eagles weren't bad but no one would blink an eye at a 16-point win during the regular season. Denver, though, is a different story. Metrics absolutely love the Pioneers, and while they're not physically imposing they have a profile of a team that's given Maryland trouble in the past - slow-it-down pace, great execution, forces turnovers, and shoots well. Niagara was a fun game; this will be much more of a yardstick.
Travel. Niagara, a team with a short bench, was visibly gassed by the Terps' pace on Tuesday. Expect Maryland to try the same tactic tonight: Denver has an even shorter bench than the Purple Eagles, and to make matters worse just travelled a solid 1500 miles across two time zones on about 40 hours of rest. Expect the Terps to have another strong second half as the Pioneers tire.
Crowd? There wasn't a huge one on Tuesday, disappointingly but with good reason: the students are on break, it's a midweek 7:00 game against some mid-major dross no one's ever heard of. There's been some talk about prices being too high, but you could make it $5 and you'd still have trouble attracting substantially more than the 4k or so that showed up. Sadly, the exact same is true for tonight, which means that if Comcast is going to attract a crowd in this tourney they'll need to hope Stanford can upset Alabama. Those that were there on Tuesday were fairly loud, though, and hopefully the same will hold true tonight.
The James Padgett question. It's likely, I'd say, that Padge sees the floor again tonight just because the odds are long to DNP a contributor two games in a row, but don't expect him to get a lot of burn. Denver runs even smaller than Niagara does, and between the Terps' shortened rotation and smaller lineup, he's still likely to be the odd man out.
The Opponent (An Overview)
Denver is, for my money, one of the strangest teams in the country. In almost everything they do, they're either really good or really bad. Feast or famine doesn't even begin to encompass it.
For starters, the Pioneers are the second-slowest team in the country in pace, not even cracking 60 possessions per game. (Compare that to Maryland, which has averaged 71 possessions over their last eight.) They're also the third-best shooting team in the country in eFG% at 56.5%; they're third in the country in forced turnover rate; they're second in the country in two-point shooting percentage; they're second in the country in assist rate, as 70% of their made field goals are assisted; they're ninth in the country in attempted three-pointers, upwards of 40% of their overall field goal attempts.
They're also third-to-last in offensive rebounding, commit bunches of fouls, run only seven deep, and have one of the shortest lineups in college basketball - Chris Udofia, at 6-6, is their "height."
In short, imagine the most mid-major team you can think of. Then double it. That's Denver.
They play the game at a snail's pace, shoot the leather off the ball on a regular basis, execute excruciatingly well on both sides of the court (70% of baskets assisted! they force a turnover on every fourth possession on average!), jack a ridiculous number of the threes, and have literally no height and no depth. They'll get destroyed on the glass and in the post, but stay in games because they're just so darned disciplined and execute so consistently. This is not a team that will beat themselves.
And that worries me, because they present a profile Maryland's had some trouble with this year. They don't play the game exactly like Boston College or Virginia, but they come from the same tree, and we've seen the troubles the Terps had with those types of games during the regular season. Frankly, Maryland just doesn't execute very well, especially when they have to do a lot of gameplanning for a very particular type of opponent. Denver represents that type of challenge.
Maryland's advantages are clear. They're a much bigger team, a much deeper team, a much more athletic team, and a much better rebounding team. Denver played a late game on Tuesday night, then flew across two time zones to get to College Park for a relatively early Thursday tip; logically, the Terps would go four guards and run like hell, constantly looking to get out on the break and run the Pioneers out of the gym. When forced into a halfcourt set, they'd look to Alex Len, who'll have seven or so inches on anyone they put him up against, and run their offense through him, either letting him play like a grown man amongst middle schoolers or forcing Denver to double in the post and then kicking it out. Defensively, they'd press and keep the intensity and pressure up, not overplaying and forcing Denver to beat a more athletic opponent.
Of course, Maryland's said that a few times before this year, to little effect. But that was a team playing with a longer rotation, no discernable style, and no perimeter scorers. Now they've shortened the bench, look comfortable playing small, get out and run, and have Dez Wells and Nick Faust hitting their shots. The NIT is useful as a test of this team's progress; this game is the first test, and it's an imposing one.
Don't let me overhype the Pioneers, though; they're a good team, but they haven't produced a ton of results when faced with top-tier opposition. They started the year 1-5 against a front-loaded schedule, dropping games to Iona, Cal, Colorado St., Southern Miss, and Stanford, never giving any of them a serious run. Those five games represented more or less their only chances at quality wins, but after that they went 21-4, rolling through the WAC with aplomb and beating quality mid-majors New Mexico St., Louisiana Tech, and Northern Iowa (on the road in a BracketBusters game). And then they went and lost to Texas State in the first round of the WAC tourney when somebody named Joel Wright went all Dez Wells and played out of his mind. They pose a threat, but Maryland's rightfully favored.
Expected Starting Fives
|Pe`Shon Howard (Jr., 6-3)||Jalen Love (Fr., 6-2)|
|Nick Faust (So., 6-6)||Brett Olson (So., 6-5)|
|Dez Wells (So., 6-5)||Chase Hallam (Sr., 6-5)|
|Jake Layman (Fr., 6-8)||Royce O’Neal (So., 6-5)|
|Alex Len (So., 7-1)||Chris Udofia (Jr., 6-6)|
Denver goes small, so expect Mark Turgeon to do the same; he'll probably stick with the five that's played so well of late, with Jake Layman at the four and the other four more or less locked in. Ditto Denver, who really only has two bench options anyway.
Turgeon does, though, have an option to switch things up, if he wants to. Clearly his best five against Niagara were Howard, Seth Allen, Faust, Wells, and Len; with Denver going so small, that's a possible alternative. But Layman tends to play better as a starter and Allen off the bench, so things will probably stay static - at least to begin things.
Matchup to Watch
I'm not quite sure how Maryland and Denver will match up with each other, given the vast matchup issues inherent in their size differences. But in terms of big names, look no further than Dez Wells vs. Brett Olson. Dez, of course, has in so many ways carried the Terps of late, and his athleticism and slashing ability will pose an issue to Denver's defense, which got carved up by a similar, inferior player in Wright. Olson, meanwhile, has played the Dez role for Denver: he's averaged 15.5 a game over the last six, all in double-figures, including 19 on Texas State and 18 on UT-Arlington, games in which he shot 7-12 from deep. He's a 44% shooter from three on the year and 15-28 over that six-game stretch (despite going 1-5 against Ohio last time out).
I fear this game, just a little. I fear it because, while Denver can lay eggs, they're also a well-drilled, efficient team that's probably not going to be an easy out. If Maryland can make quick work of them, then it's a sign of more progress than expected. But I don't particularly expect that; instead, I suspect the Pioneers to trouble Maryland all game long, never go away, and peskily hang around, including holding a few leads. Maryland's probably going to find success here in fits and starts, but assuming they run as much as you'd expect them, they should pull away in the second half, ala Niagara.
As a rule of thumb, look at the possession number. Maryland will dictate the tempo to some degree, but if this game gets bogged down in the low-60s in possessions, Denver is going to have a great shot and might even turn into the favorite. Maryland should have enough athleticism to keep that from happening, though, and if they can assert their will to get it into the upper-60s (or even higher, Juan willing) I doubt Denver will be able to keep up. I think they get it to those upper-60s, and pull away late 70-62 or so.