JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Maryland men’s basketball survived a nailbiter Thursday afternoon, taking down Belmont, 79-77, to advance to the Round of 32. Awaiting the Terps is No. 3-seed LSU, who took down Yale in the first game in Jacksonville on Thursday afternoon.
After a slow start that’s almost come to be expected of this Maryland team, the Terps came out with a 14-0 run in the second half to flip a deficit into an eight-point lead. Belmont continued to fight, and had a shot to win it in the closing seconds before an Eric Ayala deflection led to a Darryl Morsell steal and free throw to seal it.
LSU never trailed in its contest, though Yale cut the lead to three in the final minute. The Tigers are without their head coach, but their interim coach picked up his first career tournament win as a head coach. Four players scored in double figures for the SEC regular-season champs, with Naz Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams finishing with double-doubles. Losing its head coach has been challenging, but this is a team that’s dealt with tragedy this season. The Tigers have played with a little extra motivation and purpose this season, after rising junior Wayde Sims was shot and killed before the season.
These two programs will meet for just the fourth time in their histories. The winner will advance to a Sweet 16 berth back in Washington, D.C. Tipoff is scheduled for 12:10 p.m. ET on CBS.
LSU Tigers (27-6, 16-2 SEC)
2017-18 record: 18-15, 8-10
Acting coach Tony Benford took the helm after head coach Will Wade was suspended on March 8, in light of a Yahoo! report that alleged the latter was heard on wiretaps discussing payments with the now-disgraced agent Christian Dawkins. Benford was elevated to the top right before the final game of the season and has now gone 2-1 in the role. It’s his second year at LSU after five seasons leading North Texas, with just one .500 season and a 62-95 record.
Players to know
Tremont Waters, sophomore, guard, 5’11/175, No. 3. In addition to being the Tigers’ top scorer for the past two years, Waters is also one of the best defenders in the SEC. In fact, he was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year and First Team All-Conference after averaging team highs of 15.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and three steals per game in the regular season. He had a stat line of 15 points, seven assists and two steals against Yale.
Naz Reid, freshman, forward, 6’10/250, No. 0. The freshman has been a load to handle for opposing teams, and was named to the SEC All-Freshman team after averaging 13.7 points and a team-high 7.8 rebounds per game in the regular season. He’d post a double-double in his first tournament game with 14 points and 10 boards, but also had a team-high five turnovers.
Skylar Mays, junior, guard, 6’4/200, No. 4. The all-conference second team selection was LSU’s third-leading scorer and second-best pickpocket in the regular season, averaging 13.4 points and 1.9 steals per game. Against the Bulldogs, he paced the Tigers with 19 points, on a 5-of-11 outing from the field, including 2-of-5 from downtown, and went 7-of-8 from the line.
Outside of that trio, the Tigers are buoyed by freshman guard Ja’vonte Smart and senior forward Kavell Bigby-Williams. Smart was the player Wade was alleged to be talking about on the wiretap, and was held out for the season finale but reactivated before the conference tournament. The freshman averaged 11.5 points and is second on the team with 2.4 assists per game and added nine points in the opening round. Bigby-Williams averaged 7.9 points, 6.6 boards and a team-high 1.9 blocks per game this season, and made an impact with 10 points, 10 rebounds and a game-high four blocks against Yale.
Steals. LSU is a top-25 scoring team in the country, averaging 81.3 points per game. The Tigers like to get out in transition, and accomplish that goal by picking pockets. LSU gets a steal on 12.5 percent of defensive possessions, good for No. 5 in the country, according to KenPom. That translates to eight steals per game and 298 total steals, marks that rank No. 8 and No. 12 in college basketball, respectively.
Three-point shooting. For as many points as the Tigers score, they’re a subpar team from beyond the arc. LSU shoots just 32.1 percent from deep, which ranks No. 286 out of 353 Division I teams. Against Yale, the Tigers went just 4-of-17 from deep, and for the season they’ve gotten only 24.9 percent of their points from deep, a mark that’s No. 330 in the nation.
Three things to watch
1. The battle in the paint. Against Belmont, the Terps were led by their bigs, with Jalen Smith and Bruno Fernando helping to carry Maryland through colder stretches. They’ll meet a team that matches up size-wise in the paint, with Reid and Bigby-Williams clocking in at 6’10/250 and 6’11/250, respectively.
“The key for us is just be ourselves, just play defense the way we’re able to do, do our job early,” Fernando said Friday. “We can’t worry too much about them because, at the end of the day, they still have to guard us and worry about us. It goes both ways. We gotta just play basketball and do our thing and stay true to ourselves throughout the game.”
2. Who hits the offensive boards harder? Maryland’s 15-10 advantage on the offensive glass against Belmont was the stat Bruins head coach Rick Byrd said was the single biggest difference after the game. In LSU, Maryland will face a team also adept on the offensive boards, with the Tigers’ 37 percent offensive rebound rate ranking No. 5 in the nation. This is a game that could be decided on the boards.
“It’s just a mentality,” Smith said. “Every game the coaches tell us that me and Bruno should try to grab every rebound off the backboard. That’s what we play our game around, and last game it worked out the best way for us, so we’re just going to try to continue that in this game.”
3. Can Maryland continue to keep its turnovers down? The Terps are coming off a season-low five turnovers and haven’t had more than 11 giveaways in four games. Keeping that number down is going to be crucial against an LSU team that very much wants to get you in transition and running. While Belmont pushed the score from beyond the arc, the Tigers are going to try to run at every chance. Keeping the giveaways to a minimum will give the Terps their best chance to advance.
“[We have to] just continue to do what we’re doing,” Darryl Morsell said at a pregame presser Friday. “Slow down, let the game come to us. We’ve improved in the double team in the post. Our guards, we’re getting older, we’re getting more experience. We done seen pretty much every defense throughout the year, so just with this experience and just improving in the double-team and stuff, that’s why I feel like we’ve found our success and we’ve got to continue that.”
KenPom: LSU 74, Maryland 73
Me: LSU 75, Maryland 72