The Maryland men's basketball team is at the precipice of a Sweet 16 berth, with only the West Virginia Mountaineers standing in the way. The Terrapins and Mountaineers will spar around 8:40 p.m. Sunday night in Columbus, with the winner moving to a regional semifinal with Kentucky (or Cincinnati, theoretically) next weekend. Without question, it's the biggest game the Maryland program has played since Korie Lucious and Michigan State sank the Terps in the same round five years ago. For Maryland, Sunday's game presents a shot at a first Sweet 16 since 2003. The stakes are great.
Under head coach Bob Huggins, the Midwest Region's No. 5-seed Mountaineers enter with a 24-9 overall record. They lost three of their last five games in a challenging Big 12, but make no mistake: The Mountaineers are formidable. Ken Pomeroy pegs them as the 27th-best team in the country, while Associated Press voters have them at No. 21. They'll present an enormous challenge for Maryland, even though – in a couple of ways – this is one weird adversary.
Players to know
Juwan Staten, senior, 6'1. The team's heart-and-soul point guard, Staten is everything for West Virginia. He's its comfortable scoring leader, averaging 14.5 points, and his 4.7 assists are more than triple the next best setup man on his team. His 32.1 percent assist rate is one of the best marks in the country, and he's really good at drawing fouls (6.1 per 40 minutes) and not giving them out (2.2). He's been hurt a bit this year, but Staten is a stud – and a worthy match for Maryland freshman Melo Trimble.
Devin Williams, sophomore, 6'9. Williams is the nominal starting center on a somewhat undersized team. After Staten, he's the only player on the team to average double figures in scoring (11.5 points), and he's by far the team's leading rebounder (8.4 per game). Williams is the fourth-best defensive rebounder in the entire country, grabbing 30.2 percent of his opponents' misses all by himself. Against a Maryland team that doesn't get a lot of offensive rebounds to begin with, expect Williams to eat glass all night.
Jonathan Holton, junior, 6'7. Holton is a top-50 menace on the offensive glass, grabbing back 13.4 percent of the shots his team misses. He's a good defensive rebounder, too, and has managed an 8-and-5 average this year. He's one of Huggins's most diverse threats, and Maryland doesn't have anybody who's an obvious match for him. Expect Dez Wells (a little bit short) or Jake Layman (a little bit lanky) to try to guard him and work feverishly to box him out.
Jevon Carter, freshman, 6'2. Carter is a takeaway machine, with a 4.5 percent steal rate that ranks 11th in the country. He's quick and loves to pressure the ball, which makes him no fun for opposing backcourts. Carter is excellent in the full- and half-court press, and he stays tight to the ball-handler without fouling much at all.
Daxter Miles Jr., freshman, 6'3. Think of Miles as a lot like Carter: a fast freshman who loves to pressure the ball and get steals. He's just behind Carter in steal rate, and he averages 7.4 points despite not being all that good of a shooter. Like a lot of West Virginia's players, Miles isn't polished, but he can create problems with his defense and pressure.
Forcing turnovers: Nobody in the country does it better than these Mountaineers, who force turnovers on a national-best 28.1 percent of opposing possessions. West Virginia is what we'll call a "havoc team" – marvelously unrestrained and willing to charge after the ball without regard for what might happen if they don't manage to take it away. This creates a lot of problems when the Mountaineers don't get steals – which we'll get to shortly – but it means a lot of Maryland possessions probably won't even end in shots.
Offensive rebounding: The Terps have been legitimately terrible lately at preventing and getting offensive rebounds, so this could be trouble. West Virginia is the fourth-best offensive-rebounding squad in the country, pulling back a fairly outrageous 40.6 percent of its own misses. Holton is the best of the bunch here, but the entire team demonstrates a serious commitment to crashing the boards. However, this, too, has some consequences.
Allowing foul shots: This is where Maryland is best suited to make hay on Sunday. The Mountaineers give up more foul shots than literally anybody else, allowing 56 percent as many foul shots as they do shots from the field. (For comparison's sake, the national average is 37 percent.) The Terps, of course, draw foul shots at the 26th-highest rate in the country, and Melo Trimble made more of them than anybody else in power conferences this year. The Mountaineers, to borrow a football term, fly to the ball. This results in steals, but it also leads to out-of-position defenders who have no choice to foul – or just fouls on steal attempts. Both figure to help Maryland immensely.
Field goal defense: In the same vein as allowing foul shots, giving up a lot of shots from the field is a consequence of pressuring so ardently to force turnovers. When West Virginia fails to steal the ball (which is about 60 percent of the time), defenders have usually been trying for that outcome and leaving themselves vulnerable to weak-side scorers and cutters toward the basket. The result? Opponents shoot for a 52.6 percent effective field goal rate against them – a bottom-50 mark in the country. When the Terps get shots, they'll probably be good ones.
Shooting: For the Mountaineers' sake, it's a good thing they're hell-raisers on the offensive glass. They're a lousy shooting team, with a 46.7 effective field goal percentage that ranks 274th in the nation. This team gets back a lot its own misses, and there are a lot of misses to get back.
KenPom's prediction: West Virginia, 70-69. Mountaineers given 53 percent chance to win.
Alex's prediction: Maryland, 70-69. The Terps have faced three other havoc teams this year that, like West Virginia, play at a fast pace (an adjusted 68.4 possessions per game), zoom after the ball and hit the offensive glass. Against VMI, Monmouth and South Carolina Upstate (all teams lesser than West Virginia, to be sure), the Terps handled pace and ball pressure fine and made enough shots to win. The Mountaineers are a good team, definitely, but this figures to be a close game, and in close games, foul shots are king. On Sunday, look for West Virginia to give Maryland a lot of chances at the foul line. Look for Maryland to knock just enough down to set up a date with Big Blue in the Sweet 16.