Fourth seeded Maryland opens their 2014 NCAA Tournament run Sunday at 12:30 when the Army Black Knights come to Comcast Center. The Black Knights, 24-7 on the season, finished second in the Patriot League regular season made their way into the field of 64 by winning the post season league tournament. They come to College Park on a seven game winning streak.
Before getting into the preview, I want to acquaint you with a sad bit of back story on Army. They made their first ever NCAA Tournament appearance in 2006 under their dynamic young head coach Maggie Dixon. A month later, Dixon died suddenly and unexpectedly of arrhythmia. She was twenty-nine. Dave Magarity, who was an assistant on her staff, became the head coach. According to ESPN, Magarity is now the second coach to take both a men's squad (Marist in 1988) and a women's team to the Big Dance.
A deliberate style of play
What can we make of Army Black Knights? It's a given that you have to respect any opponent you face in the NCAA Tournament but Army is certainly not a team that will strike fear into the hearts of Terrapins fans or players. The Black Knights come in ranked fifty-eighth in RPI. Their 160 strength of schedule rank certainly reflects the opponents they play in their conference.
Army will try to slow the pace of the game. Where a Maryland game will average 123 shots, a typical Army game will be closer to 106 shots.As a result, the Black Knights give up only 58 points per game placing them twentieth in the NCAA in that category. Only three teams have scored seventy or more against them and they are in the top fifty in field goal percentage defense holding their opposition to 37.4 percent shooting.
For a team with no player over 6'2" tall, the Black Knights rebound surprisingly well. They hold a plus six advantage over their opponents for the season. Given their slow pace of play, this is a significant margin.
Army needs to be as stingy as they are on defense because they're not particularly potent or efficient offensively. Their average of 67 points per game places them well into the bottom half of Division I teams and they connect on only 41.2 percent of their field goal attempts with 131 teams above them in that statistic. In only eleven of their thirty two games have they exceeded seventy points.
Maryland and Army have one common opponent. In mid-December, the Black Knights traveled to Columbus to take on the Ohio State Buckeyes. The Buckeyes held on for a three point 59-56 win. Nine days earlier, the Terps hosted the Buckeyes as part of the ACC - B1G Challenge. Maryland led wire to wire in a tightly contested game that the Terps eventually won by twelve.
One outstanding player
Individually, Army has one main scoring threat in guard Kelsey Minato the eighteenth leading scorer in the country. The 5'8" sophomore from Huntington Beach, CA averages nearly 22 points per game meaning she accounts for nearly one of every three points the Black Knights score. She's a deadly three point shooter connecting on over forty-three percent from behind the arc and is even deadlier from the free throw line where she makes nearly 93 percent - good for fifth best in the NCAA. She also leads Army in assists.
Lest you think stopping Minato will be an easy task, think again. Last season, Minato was not only the Patriot League's Freshman of the Year, she was the Player of the Year as well. So we can be certain that teams came in determined to stop her and Minato still managed to lead Army in scoring in twenty-two of their thirty-two games. Needless to say, (but I'm saying it anyway), she repeated as the league's Player of the Year.
The Black Knights' second option is senior guard / forward Jen Hazlett. In the ten games that Minato wasn't Army's leading scorer, that honor fell to Hazlett. Averaging 13.8 points per game, she is Army's only other double digit scorer. Hazlett is also the leading rebounder pulling down nearly eight per game.
The winning formula
Look for the Terps to try to speed the pace of play and use their size and depth to wear down the Black Knights. Army uses a seven player rotation and both Minato and Hazlett average over thirty minutes per game. At 37 minutes, Minato rarely leaves the floor.
Though I haven't seen them play, I expect an undersized Army team plays mostly zone defense. I think the Terps will try to pound the ball inside early to exploit their considerable size advantage. I expect they will also use that size to crash the boards on both ends of the floor looking to score quickly on offensive putbacks and to get out on the break and attack the basket before Army can set their defense.
Playing against Army's zone, expect Maryland to look for Lexie Brown and Katie Rutan to try to open things up for Alicia DeVaughn and Brionna Jones on the inside. I have a feeling I'm forgetting someone. Oh, right. The Terps have this player named Thomas. Alyssa Thomas. I suspect the Black Knights will have no answer for the Terrapins' licensed to kill star.
One last note, Maryland will need their fans to show up in force. Army has sold their full ticket allotment. So represent, Terps fans. We don't want Comcast Center to sound like West Point South Sunday afternoon.