Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Dose of reality

Georgetown and George Washington, perennial afterthoughts in college basketball, are now enjoying a small amount of attention with Maryland being down again this season. It is clear from watching Comcast or reading the local papers which program of the three "pays the bills" as it were, and it isn't the two inside the District line. The Colonials play in a gym that holds less than five thousand people and looks like a concrete mausoleum. Georgetown plays in the MCI Center, mostly as a nod to their past glories, and can barely fill a third of the 20,000 seat arena. Schools like Bradley, UTEP, Fresno State, Creighton, Wichita State, Utah State, and even the cadavers at Penn State drew better average crowds than the Hoyas last season. None of those facts were mentioned in the articles written by Luke Winn on Sports Illustrated entitled Scenes from the District part I and II which didn't even mention that the only school in DC to win a national title in basketball recently is Catholic.

George Washington got some further bad press in the New York Times related to an expose about fraudulent diploma mills that have sprung up to get kids eligible to play college sports. The Times reported:

Few basketball programs have benefited from recruiting players from Schofield and Lutheran more than George Washington. The Colonials are 24-1 this year and ranked No. 7 in the Associated Press poll. Two of the team's best players, Maureece Rice and Omar Williams, played at schools run by Schofield. The George Washington president, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, had a strong reaction to The Times article.

Trachtenberg was "embarrassed" by the article, but his coach Karl Hobbs didn't seem all that phased by the obvious questions about the propriety of taking students from these kinds of fictitious prep schools. Hobbs fell back on the standard excuse that he felt obligated to give an opportunity to kids who have a "burning desire" to graduate and succeed. Apparently Hobbs assumes we're all as stupid as the president of GW or he has no shame, or perhaps it is a little of both. As for Trachtenberg he commented in a fit of ludicrous naivete that as to the players who had gone to unaccredited prep schools he, "wished they'd all gone to Andover and Horace Mann and finished first in their class." It is hard to imagine how Trachtenberg could be such a fool to not have a clue as to how Hobbs, an ex-minion of one the most crooked coaches in college basketball, was running his program.

Georgetown wasn't any bastion of higher learning when the previous Thompson was there in spite of a graduation rate that looked good on paper. Pappy Thompson got his lone national title with kids like Michael Graham who wasn't expected to qualify to play at Georgetown and then struggled to stay eligible in his one year on the team. He transferred to UDC and promptly flunked off the team. Allen Iverson wasn't interested in the foreign policy school at Georgetown either. Since 1995 the Georgetown program has had at least three players fail to qualify out of high school and still recruits players like Jeff Green and Vernon Macklin who could not get admitted at any other school that were recruiting them.

Recruiting News

Maryland has offered junior forward Darnell Dodson from Eleanor Roosevelt high according to his coach. The 6-5 Dodson is a wing player who has a decent outside stroke and scores abut 16 points per game. His free throw shooting is an abysmal 59%, however. I doubt that Dodson is a priority at this point and may be a backup plan if Corey Raji decides to go elsewhere.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Pack it in

You can't expect a team to be suddenly better than what they have shown in the previous 25 some odd games. This Maryland team is a fairly ordinary bunch that isn't worth mentioning along with the top teams in the ACC. The players on this team are a flawed bunch that don't mesh well together. I feel Gary Williams has tried everything he can the last two years to reach this group and it just isn't going to happen.

What you can expect is a team to compete with their opponents. To at least put forth a good showing in the areas that are not dependent on high levels of skill. Rebounding, defense, getting to loose balls these are all things that even mediocre players can do with some success if they put forth a high level of effort. Highly skilled players can do the first two without complete effort but merely average players cannot. This Maryland team can't hope to give the effort they have the last 10 games and hope to win more than a couple. They didn't just go down to the Dean Dome in the biggest game of their season and lose, that should have been expected, they were never competitive in a 24 point blowout to a good but nowhere near great Tarheel team. It was another embarrassing loss in a season that has had far too many.

Nik Caner-Medley struggled against the long and quick perimeter players for Carolina as he did in the previous meeting. Reyshawn Terry and Danny Green are bad matchups for Caner-Medley on both ends of the floor. He shot a horrid 3-16 while forcing far too many shots. He has started pressing the last few games and his shot selection has gone right down the tidy bowl.

DJ Strawberry has regressed in the last 5 games and had a dreadful night. The utter horror show that was his performance can't be seen in the box score. On defense he's started to wander around like the guy in those old Maxwell House commercials popping in for a cup of coffee with complete strangers. You never know where he's going to show up. Sometimes it is hard to tell who he is even trying to guard. On offense he only runs the offensive sets about half the time before he either drives the lane, without any thoughts of a kick out to an open man, or throws one pass to a teammate who inevitably throws up a shot regardless if he's open or not. I love Strawberry as a passionate player and someone who will try hard every night but he's killing this team right now.

James Gist and Ekene Ibekwe have been largely ineffective on either end of the floor the last few weeks. On offense neither can create anything in the low post unless they have some space or the ability to drive to the lane. Neither understands where they need to position themselves in the low block and often get the ball where they have little chance for a good shot. Reyshawn Terry and David Noel don't have the physical ability of either Gist or Ibekwe but that duo outrebounded them both again. Much was made of all the "layups" that Maryland missed inside and that was an explanation for the 24 point loss, which is total hooey. It has nothing to do with the shots just not going in, this group wasn't a good shooting team before they dropped off the cliff in the last few games. Last season this same bunch had one of the lowest field goal percentages for any team in the Gary Williams era. They have all the firepower of a Daisy air rifle.

It doesn't help that Mike Jones is still in a shooting funk that has seen him go 5-21 in the last two games. He wasn't so totally befuddled on defense as he was against the athletic guards for Georgia Tech and Florida State. Then again you could probably guard walk-on guard Wes Miller with any number of kids playing in high school at the moment. His game consists of spot up 3-point shots and that is it. With a bench that hasn't produced a double digit scorer since Chris McCray flunked off the team Maryland can't afford to have Jones and Caner-Medley play this poorly on offense. The current bench has to be among the worst in the ACC and it places Maryland at a huge disadvantage.

When the lead swelled to 20 points it was obvious that more than a few Maryland players had already quit which was highlighted by the loafing down the court in transition and the fact that Carolina, even with an insurmountable advantage, was outhustling Maryland for most of the loose balls and rebounds. Maryland gave up running its offense early in the second half and would often make no more than 2 passes in a possession, in spite of the fact that the players insisted they were getting good looks, resulting in a putrid 27% shooting night. Carolina's defense simply isn't that good and it is incomprehensible that a group of players on the level of Maryland's could play so poorly. The comments coming out of the locker room afterwards struck me as more delusional than a feeble attempt to keep hope alive. It is hard to fix your problems when the players don't even have a clue what they are failing to accomplish on the floor.

To add insult to injury it is Senior Day for Maryland when they play Miami on Wednesday night. We'll have to ponder this senior class that has been the biggest disaster in at least the last 15 years. Sadly it is about time to look ahead to next year and a fresh start with some new faces.

The fat, unhappy middle

With just a week left in the regular season there is a glut of teams in the middle of the ACC's standings. It is a rather mediocre collection that will likely produce nothing more than a bunch of NIT candidates. Florida State, Virginia, Miami and Maryland are all either at 0.500 on the conference or within one game of even. Virginia and FSU looked like they would separate themselves from the group to contend for the unlikely fifth bid from the ACC. They were both longshots anyway as neither has an impressive win either inside or outside the conference, unless you include Virginia's recent victory over BC, and their RPIs are still mired in the high 50's. Still, each had won three of their last four games going into this weekend and had some momentum going into games with bottom feeders Clemson and Virginia Tech. Both crashed and burned and likely ended any chance to get into the NCAA tournament. They each would need to win both their remaining games, which include @UNC for the Wahoos and Duke for Florida State, to have even the slightest chance.

Perhaps an explanation for the surprising seasons of NC State and North Carolina have as much to do with the dismal state of the ACC as with their playing better than their talent. For that matter there is only one ACC team that has a good chance to go deep into the NCAA tournament and that is likely number one seed Duke. It is a pitiful year for ACC basketball, which makes Maryland's struggles all the more depressing. The ACC is bad enough that even with a loss today if Maryland won its final two games, at home against Miami and at Virginia, they would probably get a bid. Those are hardly imposing games, even for a inconsistent bunch like the 2005 Terrapins.

North Carolina is riding the crest of a four game winning streak that includes three road victories. In their last game they embarrassed the Wolfpack in Raleigh, 95-71. They posted 24 assists and only 6 turnovers in the game while canning 10 3-point baskets. That sounds like a deadly combination for a Maryland squad that struggles to guard the 3-point line and lacks discipline with their half court defense. The young Tarheels have also done a much better job protecting the basketball in their recent winning streak with no more than 13 turnovers in any game. Carolina can get baskets in transition and is starting to be more efficient in the half court. Now the four teams they defeated probably had three of the worst defensive teams in the league at pressuring the ball away from the basket, something Maryland can do with modest effectiveness. It will be incumbent on DJ Strawberry, Sterling Ledbetter and Parrish Brown to force Bobby Fasor, Wes Miller and Quentin Thomas into mistakes. David Noel and Reyshawn Terry hurt Maryland in the first meeting, while Tyler Hansbrough was mostly contained. Terry and Noel were much more aggressive on the boards than Maryland's frontcourt and grabbed 21 rebounds combined. The Terps will have to prevent them from gaining a rebounding advantage like in the last meeting that to have a good chance today.

In this game Maryland's deficiency at the point guard position won't be as big a factor unless Ledbetter and Strawberry make self inflicted mistakes as none of Carolina's backcourt is adept at getting steals. They will be content to play position defense and make Maryland beat them with offensive execution. The Maryland players are going to have to match the intensity of a team playing in front of its home crowd, it will be obvious from the way they rebound and play defense if they are going to do that. With North Carolina moving up to the top 15 in the RPI and Arkansas moving into the top 50 with a win over Tennessee Maryland could have three wins over the top 50 in the RPI, which would put them in an excellent position for a bid.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Terps drop to NIT territory

I had some computer issues the other day so please forgive my sparse postings these last few days. Not that it has been very pleasant to write about this Maryland basketball team lately either. Maryland lost for the sixth time in it's last eight games. Their record since Chris "Scholar" McCray flunked off the team stands at 3-6 and they go into the game in Chapel Hill on Sunday having lost three of the last four. I think that Maryland will not make it to the NCAA tournament at this point but the odd thing is that of all the remaining "bubble" teams in the ACC Maryland has by far the best chance to get in. Their RPI is better than any of the other three contenders and they could probably get in to the tournament with an 8-8 record and a win in the ACC tournament. The others probably have to go 9-7 and win one game to have a shot. To give those of you who still have a sliver of hope an idea of where Maryland stands they only need win one of the next two games, either North Carolina or Miami, and then you have a elimination game at Virginia. As bad as Maryland has looked that is all it would take. If Maryland was able to pull off an unlikely upset of UNC then I think Maryland would be in the tournament if they only won one of their following three games.

In last night's game Maryland looked like a solid NIT squad. Their offensive execution was horrendous. In the first half Maryland shot just over 30% from the floor and couldn't do much of anything to get good looks at the basket. After the 10 minute mark in the first half Maryland didn't really threaten until closing to within six points at 37-31 with 17 minutes left in the game. They then promptly got blow out and were down by 20 points just 7 minutes later. The defense wasn't particularly good, giving up a mixture of fast break, second chance and 3-point scoring by FSU, but it may have been enough to win had the offense not been so putrid.

Much has been made all season of the lack of a "true" point guard for Gary Williams and it has certainly been a constant source of difficulty but last night, as bad as the guards played, it was two key players who let Maryland down totally: James Gist and Mike Jones. Both were coming off excellent games versus Georgia Tech. Jones scored 21 points and Gist notched a tough double-double in the win over the Yellow Jackets. Last night they combined for 4 points in 33 minutes. With the Terps' paper thin depth they simply can't afford those kinds of nights from key players. Gist got into early foul trouble and was never really a factor while Jones had an embarrassing night where he attempted to play something that never resembled defense. He looked like he was trying out for the ballet with all of the ridiculous leaping for ball fakes that wouldn't fool a grade schooler. Jones was completely shut out in the second half. In his post game comments Williams called their disappearance "amazing". When you're trying to rely on what really are two sophomores in terms of playing time you'll have to expect some stinkers but you hope they don't happen on the same night or in a critical game.

It wasn't as if anyone else had a notable game either. Nik Caner-Medley scored 19 points but by the time he got his first basket of the second half the game was already over. His 11 2nd half points all came with Maryland down by almost 20 points and the team's fate sealed.

Ekene Ibekwe score 15 points and had some flashes of decent play but also had 6 turnovers and collected five points in the last few minutes of garbage time. The entire frontcourt struggled badly against a deep but mediocre FSU frontline. There isn't anyone on FSU who has the low post skills of Ra'Sean Dickey or Jeremis Smith but neither Ibekwe or especially Gist could exploit that. Note that Al Thorton plays more of a small forward position and doesn't post up very often. Most of his points were either in transition or outside the paint.

Sterling Ledbetter, as usual, was painful to watch. His turnover in the last few moments of the game, when he wasn't even pressured by a defender, was embarrassing. All told in the last 6 minutes Parrish Brown, Ledbetter and Strawberry had 4 turnovers combined. But it wasn't just the turnovers that killed Maryland, it was also the incredibly poor decisions by that trio. There were numerous times with Maryland trailing in the 2nd half that one of the three dribbled up the court and took an immediate shot with only a few seconds coming off the shot clock. No attempt to run the offense and get a good look for a teammate, no ability to drive and kick to an open shooter, little court vision and game situation awareness. It is painful to watch this group.

Will Bowers came off the bench and provided some lift for the offense, but the 5 man combination of Bowers, Garrison, Caner-Medley, Strawberry and Ledbetter was badly outplayed in the first half. He had only a single rebound in 14 minutes of play and along with Garrison gave up a number of offensive rebounds to the Seminoles.

It is a broken record, but the perimeter defense was terrible once again. The guards gave up six 3-point baskets in the first half alone. That, along with Maryland's aversion to using the 3-point basket in its own offense, doomed the Terps.

They will need a few days of fantastic practice and hard work to have a chance of beating North Carolina, who, after thumping NC State in Raleigh last night, is playing excellent basketball.

McCray on senior night
I have a few thoughts on Gary Williams comments in the Washington Post that he would allow McCray to participate in the ceremonies honoring the seniors before the Miami game. I feel that he should not be honored before the game for a couple of reasons. First, this isn't punishment for McCray. Senior night is a privilege and an honor given to those who have earned it, McCray has does not deserve this perk. Let's all be clear, denying someone a perk isn't tantamount to punishment. Second, while McCray has had a decent career at Maryland the team that won the 2004 ACC title has already been honored. I don't imagine anyone has much interest in flying John Gilchrist back from Israel to get an ovation either. Third, I'm not sure what kind of reception McCray would get from the crowd. There will be a mix of boos and cheers from the fans. Why risk a potentially embarrassing and unpleasant scene?

I know Gary Williams is showing his loyalty to Chris McCray and his players by saying this to the press. At the same time all great coaches who demand perfection from themselves need to hold their players and assistants to the same level. That has been the downfall of more than a few great coaches over the years, they stopped holding those around them accountable for their failures. McCray's selfishness has cost his coach and teammates dearly this year and he doesn't deserve the privilege of senior night.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Terps on life support

I was out of town this weekend and didn't get a chance to write my normal postgame. I'll do my best with this late and abbreviated version.

Any sort of win in this season with this team is a good thing, but until the wins start piling up it only keeps Maryland alive until the next game. The overtime win against Georgia Tech kept the Terps alive for a few more days. Maryland will likely need to finish at 8-8 in the ACC and possibly win an ACC tournament game depending on who they are matched up against. Getting to .500 against Georgia Tech was essential with three remaining road games. The Yellow Jackets had been playing better of late with a win over NC State and nearly upsetting North Carolina in Chapel Hill. They were not a pushover. Still, there is a reason they are 3-10 in the ACC. I'm not sure there is a solid reason to be excited going forward as this team is still filled with glaring holes.

Maryland did their best to give the game away with another 26 turnover day against a Yellow Jackets defense that is physical but not adept at pressuring the basketball. There were a number of stretches where Maryland could have put the game away in the second half but frittered away leads with sloppy ball handling. Georgia Tech amassed 30 points off Maryland turnovers, which explains how Maryland shot 55%, out rebounded their opponent, had 20 assists, and made 25 free throws and still had to win in overtime. Without Mike Jones electrifying block as time expired Maryland could very well have lost.

The defense wasn't great in spite of the low shooting percentage of Georgia Tech, it was more about them just not hitting open shots. Tech's shooters missed at least 3 or 4 wide open looks from 3-point range. There has been no cure of the porous perimeter defense and it likely won't get much better since there isn't a single defender on the team right now who can deny the opponent's 3-point threat. Mike Jones had a great night but probably gave up 13-17 points on the defensive end where he really struggled.

Maryland would have lost the game had Ekene Ibekwe and James Gist failed to snap out of their funks and each post a double-double. To have two frontcourt players do that in a game is pretty rare. If they can build on this game Maryland will be in a much better position. Gist was more aggressive and has the best ability to pass out of the post, as evidenced by his great feed to Mike Jones for a huge 3-pointer with 5 minutes left in the game, of any big man.

Jones had a career night hitting 8/10 shot attempts and scoring 21 points. He also showed some nice ability to work off screens and get some curls on the paint. His big body and quickness help him score in the lane. He isn't just a 3-point sharpshooter. He struggled badly on defense and with turnovers but Jones is still growing into his position and learning with every game. Last night his offense was on but his defense and ball handling was dreadful. As he gains seasoning he'll be able to put all them together in the same game.

Nik Caner-Medley struggled on offense but played 42 minutes and showed some great on the court leadership. While he wasn't able to contribute much to the stat sheet he kept his teammates motivated and rallied them when things were going south. For a senior who has never had that role in the previous three years it is impressive.

Sterling Ledbetter and DJ Strawberry didn't play horribly on offense which is about all you can hope for in Ledbetter's case. His defense is still horrendous and he got burned by a Georgia Tech duo of West and Frederick that wouldn't exactly strike fear into opponents. Strawberry was sloppy with the ball, again, but this time he hit his foul shots. This game and the Clemson fiasco are proof to me that if you live and die by these two, you'll lose more than you'll win.

Travis Garrison was his normal jump shooting, reverse layup when a dunk was available, turnstyle low post defense, marshmallow self. He has stopped even trying to look for an open teammate or a better shot when he comes off the bench. He took a bunch of jumpshots and had only 1 rebound in 15 minutes of play despite with Georgia Tech missing 43 shots and giving him plenty of opportunities.

I think Florida State is actually a team that Maryland matches up with well. They don't have dominating low post game and rely more on a high tempo pressure style to score points in transition. In the half court they are fairly shaky. Al Thorton can score a ton of points but they rest of the Seminoles are really more complementary players. Forward Alexander Johnson is one of the bigger whiners in the ACC and has taken on a thug role in the last few weeks. He'll try to intimidate Ibekwe and Gist with very physical play, which saw him foul out in the Duke game after a hard foul and double technical with Sheldon Williams. It will come down to which team is more disciplined: on defense, rebounding and with turnovers. Florida State can't outrun Maryland like they have some other teams this year, but if Maryland turns the ball over 26 times they won't have to. If I were Gary I'd actually try to slow the tempo down and play in the half court with FSU. Interestingly FSU has already played three overtime games in the ACC and except for a blowout loss to NC State most of their recent losses have been competitive. They have not beaten a top 50 RPI team all year and are only 4-2 at home.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Recruit update

It would seem this is a great time to mention some of the news on recruits that will be coming to College Park next year. For the class of 2006 there are a number of encouraging signs in the play of the cornerstones of the class.

Point guard Eric Hayes is probably the most critical recruit in the class, especially for next season. His development as a point guard would allow the Terps to have much better depth and move DJ Strawberry to the SG or SF slot where he is much better suited. For Potomac high school he is averaging 22 points per game and shooting 86% from the free throw line. He has a young team around him and has taken on a scoring role this season. Last week in a game against Woodbridge Hayes scored 34 points, dished 8 assists and had 7 rebounds. That is a pretty sweet line for any high school player but when you consider it was a 66-61 overtime victory for Potomac it is even more amazing. With freshman you should never get your hopes up too high but I think Hayes will be the best immediate contributor out of this class.

Versatile swing man Greivis Vasquez is averaging 13 points per game for Montrose Christian and putting in 80% from the free throw line. For now Vasquez is more a complimentary player but could develop into more with the proper coaching. He'll be a nice asset off the bench, probably better than any bench player Maryland has right now.

Landon Milbourne is playing well with some elite teammates at Oak Hill. He is averaging 10.4 points per game on 18 minutes of playing time. He's also grabbing 4.6 rebounds and is shooting 56% from the floor and an impressive 48% from 3-point range. This year at Oak Hill will prepare Milbourne for ACC play as he has three teammates who will also be attending ACC programs: Nolan Smith (Duke), Tywon Lawson (UNC) and Jeff Allen (VT).

Forward Jerome Burney has helped lead his Westlake team to a Region 5-AAA championship and will compete for the state title. The Atlanta Journal Constitution has called Burney the best defensive center in the entire state. Recruiting analyst Bob Gibbons has ranked Burney number 107 in the class of 2006 when he started out as an unranked 3-star prospect that wasn't on anyone's radar. He is averaging a triple double this year(14 ppg, 12 reb, 11 blks), admittedly in a low level league.

Gary Williams was at Good Counsel high school last week to scout John Flowers who was in town with St. Mary's Ryken to play the Falcons. The 6'7" junior forward scored 17 points in an overtime win. He was invited to the Duke vs Maryland game the next day in College Park. He's a tweener kind of player so I'm not sure he'll be a high level prospect. Recruiting insiders seem to be skeptical of his true potential. He is garnering interest from West Virginia mostly along with George Washington, Virginia and Virginia Tech.

Interesting article in the Washington Post about the sham "prep schools" that have sprung up to get athletes eligible for the NCAA clearinghouse standards.

Perhaps you've heard some of the nasty rumors circulating about why Maryland alum and former CBS sideline report Bonnie Burnstein quit her job with three years remaining on her contract. According to Michael Silver of Sports Illustrated the real reason for her leaving her CBS job had to do with the death of a longtime friend due to cancer. She has started up a consulting company for aspiring broadcasters with the unfortunate name of Velvet Hammer Media. I wish Bonnie the best of luck and hope to see her back in sports journalism in the near future.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

"Purnell defeats Williams!"

I'm always fascinated how history repeats itself or, to be less cliched, how there are parallels across eras of human history. The last time Clemson basketball enjoyed a four game winning streak against Maryland the incumbent president was sinking in the polls prior to the election with many pollsters forecasted his defeat, but he won an unlikely victory. He had a folksy manner and was derided in some circles as an unsophisticated man who didn't possess the proper abilities to be President. American soldiers were still stationed as occupiers in various countries across the globe. An unpopular war that was seen as a waste of money and American lives was continuing with only the help of a few of allies of the United States, namely Great Britain. The conflict had started to turn into a stalemate that the electorate became increasingly weary about continuing.

That man was Harry Truman and those years were 1949-1951. I don't want to get too political since that isn't what this blog is supposed to be about, but regardless of your political leanings the similarities are striking.

That's enough grandiose musing for now. Now we turn to the unpleasant task of dissecting this rotted corpse of a game. There was nothing pretty about that game. At 5-6 Maryland blew a chance to set itself up nicely for a run at the NCAAs. Now they will have to kick off a winning streak and probably take at least 3, and more probably 4, of the last 5 games. I'm not sure this group has that kind of a turnaround in them. As with last year Clemson may have been this group's Waterloo.

Here are a few observations about the game:

Clearly the perimeter defense is a disaster. The two situations that this group struggles with are when to leave their man on the perimeter and defend when the opponent executes a high screen. All the wing players leave their man from time to time but Sterling Ledbetter and DJ Strawberry are the two main culprits. Strawberry does this because he often gets caught gambling for a steal when he shouldn't be while Ledbetter gets caught because he lacks the foot speed and defensive fundamentals. As a group this team doesn't have a clue how to defend the high screen. The frontcourt is totally inept at giving any help defense on screens and actually gets in the way of their teammate more often than not. Why do you suppose that a team like Duke, who is almost always far ahead of their opponents, is one of the best teams at defending the perimeter in the entire nation? Part of it is the discipline of their wing players, but it is also the excellent help defense by their big men, namely Sheldon Williams. Next time Duke is on TV, which should be within 30 minutes of whenever you turn it on, watch their big men play off the high screen and you'll see what I'm talking about.

So a scrub like Shawan Robinson scores a season high 24 points and nails 5/10 threes. Troy Mathis, whoever that is, also hit 2/3 and as a team Clemson hit 12/28 attempts from outside. I wasn't a math major but that is 36 points and just under half of all the shots they sunk. It was the eight time that Maryland had given up 10 or more 3-point baskets for the season and the sixth time in 11 ACC games. You can't win, no matter how good you are on offense, giving up that many 3-point baskets. It is simple math, my friends. Suppose each team takes 10 shots, Maryland only shoots traditional field goals and their opponent only takes 3-point shots. Now suppose the opponent hits 40% of those attempts, the Terps conference average in 3-point defense, that means they will score 12 points. Maryland now needs to his 6 of its 10 shots to match that total. Almost no team will shoot 60% over the course of a game. I'm not advocating that Maryland become a team like NC State, they don't have the personnel even if they wanted to, but I am pointing out that bad perimeter defense puts incredible pressure on the rest of your game. You have to be almost perfect to win.

As for the players here are some random thoughts:

DJ Strawberry is passionate and he certainly has heart but he also needs to channel his intensity in a productive way. His out of control play during Clemson's pivotal 19-1 run that started at just under 17 minutes to go in the game sealed the loss for Maryland.

I don't want to keep taking shots at Sterling Ledbetter but he was again atrocious. He had 5 fouls in just 7 minutes in the 2nd half, that about sums it up I think.

Mike Jones scored a bunch but also had lapses on defense and at time was sloppy with the ball. His cramping and minor knee injury really hampered Maryland in its comeback bid when they needed his outside shooting. Jones said he was fine after the game.

Parrish Brown played well for a kid who hasn't seen much of the floor in the last month. His size will always be a problem in the ACC and he got manhandled a few times by Clemson's physical and aggressive defense. He still managed to gather 6 assists though and is a better scoring option than Ledbetter. Look for him to get more minutes in the next few games.

Gist and Ibekwe both struggled against a mediocre Clemson frontcourt. Neither managed to get to the free throw line much, a consistent weakness for both, and would rush shots when they got the ball in the post. A lack a patience is an endemic problem with this club but none more than these two. Maryland needed one of them to elevate their play but neither could.

Travis Garrison seems to no longer care about his play, not that he really did before, and is consistently beat to rebounds and abused on defense. His performance against Akinbala was embarrassing even by his low standards.

Nik Caner-Medley was again the center of this team. He has the ability to take over a game and yet in crucial stretches of the 2nd half his teammates made little attempt to get him the ball. He posted his 3rd double-double of the season and was very aggressive in going after defensive rebounds. He seemed to get frustrated with his teammates and I think feels a certain disconnect with the younger players on the squad. He must feel immense pressure in these last few weeks since Chris McCray flunked off the team. It has to be wearing on him.

This loss is the low point of the last two years in my book. A terrible Clemson team that was short its best player, on a five game losing streak, with the worst offense in the ACC was able to put almost 90 points on the board. The most disheartening aspect was how many loose balls, rebounds and steals Clemson got against Maryland. Those things all are evidence of superior effort and I just can't fathom how Maryland's players, with a few exceptions, could be so apathetic in such a crucial game. This team is going to lose more games after this one but I tremble to think it's possible they will play more halfheartedly that they did at Clemson.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Go see the Wizard

For a long time I was a Miami Dolphins fan. One of my favorite players during the 16 years or so that I cheered for the franchise was linebacker Bryan Cox. You may remember him as a fiery and at times volatile character. His most memorable moment may have been his double finger salute to the Buffalo fans after they directed some racist taunts at him. I followed him when he went to the Bears after Jimmy Johnson took over the team and I stopped rooting for the 'Phins. I'm sure you're wondering what the hell this has to do with the sad state of Maryland basketball. Let me explain why I bring up Mr. Cox.

After an embarrassing loss to the Packers Cox had had enough of his teammates accepting mediocrity. In the locker room after the 37-6 rout by the Packers in Soldier Field Cox erupted. "Some of us need to see the Wizard because we don't have a lot of heart," Cox spat to reporters, "Search the waiver wire. This ain't college. If people are not doing their job, let's get out and get some people in who want to play."

Now I'm sure there were some out there who didn't like what he had to say. He was being a loudmouth or had violated some "code of the lockeroom" or some such nonsense. I bet his teammates, specifically the ones who knew he was talking about them, didn't like it either. What he said wasn't popular but then again often the truth often isn't. Which brings us back to the 2005 Maryland Terrapins. In the wreckage of the loss to Clemson last night Nik Caner-Medley came as close to saying about his teammates what Bryan Cox said about the Bears all those years ago. He didn't mention a tin man, cowardly lion or brainless scarecrow, though this team has a few of each, but the message was the same. Said Caner-Medley after the game:

"Teams are shooting better against us than they do against any other team in the league. Really what it comes down to is you can play team defense all you want, but you have to be able to stop your man. At this level, you have to take pride in that. I just think that right now everybody has to do a lot of soul-searching on this team, and look themselves in the mirror and think about how bad you want to win, and how bad you want to prepare, and how bad you want to dedicate your life to this game. That's what it really comes down to."

Harsh, but true. The painful fact is that Clemson's collection of sad talent simply wanted to win more than Maryland's players did and it showed as Clemson played energized and aggressive defense and got to more loose balls. With the exception of Caner-Medley, who seems to be the only player who hasn't packed it in yet, this group went down and got outworked by a bunch of NIT level players who had not won a game in almost a month. I think it is safe to assume that for the second straight year the NCAA tournament will be without a Maryland squad at this point. They do have five games left but will be favored in probably only one of those contests. Given this groups inability to compete in road games I don't see them winning the 2 out of 3 road games they will need to have a shot at the NCAAs. The Terps' RPI is still a healthy 43 as of this morning but it has been sinking with every game. The game at Chapel Hill against the Tar Heels who are currently 22nd in the RPI looms large, though if they can't beat FSU or Georgia Tech between now and then it won't matter much.

I haven't mustered the stomach to analyze the game yet, but as always I have some thoughts about it. I'll post them by tomorrow I hope.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Post loss quiz

Pick the combination of post game comments from the players. The reader with the most correct picks wins my undying admiration.

A. "we need to play harder"
B. "they wanted it more than us"
C. "we have to commit to defense"
D. "everything they shot went in"
E. "we have to make better decisions"
F. "we're still a good team"
G. "the season isn't over"
H. "we have to stick together"
I. "we just have to believe in each other"
J. "we need to cut down on mistakes"
K. "it's disappointing"

Monday, February 13, 2006

Rosetta Stone

Like last season the Terps have a critical game for their postseason hopes with the Clemson Tigers. Clemson will likely be without guard Vernon Hamilton who injured his wrist and thumb at the end of the Boston College game. Hamilton is the leading scorer for Clemson and probably their best all around player but I'm not really sure how much his absence will help Maryland's chances given that he hadn't been playing very well the last few losses. Clemson isn't a very good scoring team but they play solid defense and play for some steals and easy transition baskets. They are not really dependent on one particular player, though Hamilton did keep the game against Duke close for them.

If Hamilton does not play then Shawan Robinson will start at point guard in his place. Robinson killed Maryland last year as he hit numerous clutch 3-point baskets in the three wins over the Terps. In those three games he scored 63 points and made 14 3-point baskets. Moving him to the point may help Maryland remove him from the equation on the scoring end as he plays much better without the ball. Forward Akin Akinbala has played better as of late and has 7 straight double figure scoring performances. He had 21 points and 7 rebounds against Boston College in the last game.

Clemson takes over 23 3-point attempts per game but makes less than a third of those. Of course with Maryland's pathetic perimeter defense you never know if that will change tonight. Whomever Sterling Ledbetter ends up guarding will likely have a season high. Maryland's frontcourt will have to rebound some of the long caroms from those outside misses to prevent offensive rebounds. Maryland's frontcourt should dominate Clemson but with this inconsistent group you can't rely on more than one having a good night. Hopefully James Gist or Ekene Ibekwe will step up large tonight.

Given Clemson's proclivity for the steal Maryland will have to continue to take care of the ball. Maryland has done fairly well with that in the last four games as they have not turned it over more than 13 times in any contest. They will need more of that. When they don't turn the ball over they score. Duke is the number one defense in the ACC and Maryland scored more points against them in regulation than any team this season. The problem isn't scoring it is not turning the ball over and playing good defense. If Maryland does both they'll win easily, if not it will be an ugly, ugly dogfight that may end in the low 60's.

Do the Maryland players want this game more than Clemson? That will decide the outcome. The Tigers have not won 4 in a row against Maryland since 1951. Losing this game would set another historical low point for this current group. Let's hope on Valentine's Day they show the fans some love and play with the pride befitting a Maryland team. This game really is a critical matchup for Maryland and a loss would be devastating. In the midst of a 5 game losing streak(including 2 at home and 7 out of the last 8), missing their leading scorer and point guard, Maryland couldn't ask for a more vulnerable opponent. This week will decide Maryland's postseason hopes. Clemson and Georgia Tech on Saturday are must win games. Say a fervent prayer, put on any lucky clothing, sacrifice a chicken, do whatever you must.

The man, the myth, the legend

We've seen this script before: JJ Redick scores a bunch of points, Sheldon Williams dominates the lane and Maryland makes enough mistakes for Duke to capitalize upon for a win. I'm not sure what it was but this game lacked that juice that these contests usually have. Perhaps Duke is settling back into the pattern of knowing they are better than Maryland and that they'll win even before the tip. You never really felt that Duke was scared at any point in the game. Perhaps all that is just my perspective, but I didn't even stew about the loss as I normally would. I just don't think Maryland is in Duke's class this season.

They methodically worked their offense and played defense well enough to win. The Blue Devils' bench only scored 2 points yet they were able to score 96 for the game. Throw out Josh McRoberts, who has to be the most overrated freshman in the country, and the rest of the starters shot 57%. Redick only shot 4-10 from 3-point range but was able to get to the foul line and drive to the basket on Maryland's more athletic guards. Still, without Williams having his way with Maryland's frontcourt and the duo of Sean Dockery and Greg Paulus going 7-9 from outside the arch it wouldn't have been near enough for Duke to win.

Redick is a great player, that is obvious, but the hype that has begun to surround him needs to stop. He's not the greatest player in Duke history, he's not even close. In the last decade of college basketball Redick probably wouldn't even make a top 40 list of players. There are eight players in the ACC who take at least 2.5 3-point attempts per game who shoot a higher percentage than Redick. That doesn't even consider the perhaps hundred or more shooters in the rest of college basketball that also have higher percentages from 3-point range. The myth of Redick's outside shooting wasn't even questioned until last year when Arizona's Lute Olson pointed out that his own Salim Stoudemire was head and shoulders better than Redick. I would argue he isn't even the most valuable player on his own team, but that is another topic.

A number of thoughts on the game:

James Gist needs to start finishing better around the basket. Many of his 10 missed field goals were right around the lane and he also snagged 7 offensive rebounds, while only shooting 3 free throws. That isn't going to cut it. Sheldon Williams got away with some very physical play in the post, but like all star players he's going to get those calls. Gist and Ekene Ibekwe combined to go 9-23 from the floor. If Maryland is going to get into the tournament those two will have to do much better against teams like Clemson, Miami and FSU.

Gary Williams substitution pattern was curious to put it politely. With Sheldon Williams running wild in the first half and then doing further damage after halftime Williams only elected to put in Will Bowers for short stretches of the game. In the 9 minutes Bowers played Williams only scored 2 points. It isn't like this is something new as Bowers was effective against Williams in the two victories last season. I was somewhat surprised that Gary Williams didn't start Bowers again. James Gist is a talented player who still has untapped potential but he's just a sophomore going up against a senior All-American. It was a bad matchup on defense and Gary Williams should have adjusted earlier.

Nik Caner-Medley seemed to have recovered from the flu and had the best game of any player for the Terps. He scored 22 points, had 8 rebounds and dished 4 assists. It was a splendid performance. Maryland has to have those kinds of nights from Caner-Medley from here on out.

Down 12 points with 10 minutes left in the second half Maryland didn't even attempt a 3-point shot until there were under two minutes left. Playing basketball like the 3-point shot didn't exist was another tactical error for the Maryland staff. They needed to start running sets to get some good outside looks but were fixated on trying to get Sheldon Williams in foul trouble. It didn't work with the way the officials were calling the game. By the time Maryland made the switch it was too late. They had no chance if they were going to trade field goals with Duke and hence they never really threatened late in the 2nd half. It is well known that Gary doesn't like the 3-point shot but he's going to have to go to more than 9 3-point attempts if he was going to win this game. Late in the game his best shooter was on the bench.

DJ Strawberry and Sterling Ledbetter didn't play well enough to give Maryland a decent chance. They took care of the ball better, which is a good trend over the last few games, but their shot selection and defense was spotty to poor for most of the game. Strawberry is still gambling for steals far too often and has a maddening tendency to curl under high screens. I'm really not sure what Sterling Ledbetter does to justify 20 minutes of playing time.

Ready to "take off"

You may recall that head football coach Ralph Friedgen said that Maryland's football program was ready to "take off" after this past season ended with another disappointing 5-6 record. I don't know about you but "crashed into the mountain" was more of that I was thinking. Maybe Fridge meant that the staff was about to "take off" as offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe resigned from his position over the weekend. That is two coordinators resigning in the last 3 months. Look at the situation and I can't help but wonder if the program is in a state of disarray. Taaffe resigned without another job, he isn't retiring. He would rather walk away and be unemployed than stay at Maryland. Taaffe was on Friedgen's original staff and it should certainly raise some eyebrows that he elected to leave. Perhaps he doesn't think Maryland's program is heading in the right direction. Maybe the pressures and demands of trying to correct a sinking program are trickling down to the staff from the captain of the ship. Friedgen had a telling quote in the papers: "I'm definitely going to be looking for a guy who's a good coordinator and a good recruiter, you can't have enough good recruiters."

Hmm, has the problem really been a lack of recruiting, Ralph? One of reasons Gary Blackney cited in retiring after the season ended was that he was tired of being on the road recruiting. You have to imagine that Friedgen is putting a lot of pressure on his staff to bring in highly ranked recruits. However Friedgen's best recruiting classes have come the last 3 years or so and have yet to produce any successful teams. He's had some very good individual players like Vernon Davis and Shawne Merriman but they rest of the group, at least collectively, have been duds. Perhaps Blackney and Taaffe did not like the recent emphasis on getting elite recruits over say actually developing the players that they already have. When a few kids don't progress the way you want them too it is easier to just look at the next highly rated player at their position coming out of high school.

In the early years Friedgen's teams were fundamentally sound but only modestly talented, whereas now they are more talented than ever but are unable to execute well in critical moments. It has been a very stark switch over in the character of the squad the last two seasons. Perhaps Friedgen needs to focus more on coaching and less on trying to squeeze more money out of boosters or wooing the next overhyped prospect to come out of the Washington area.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Blind Hate

Duke makes its annual trip to College Park and all the jokes about burning couches and water bottles are being dusted off as we speak. There is no way around the conclusion that Maryland fans' obsession with Duke has been an unhealthy one for a long time now. You can hate Krzyzewski and Redick (and certainly Wojo) but you also should respect their consistent excellence. Don't fall into the trap of irrational tribal thinking that anything Duke does is the product of luck or hype. You don't have to like any of the Dukies, or certainly their insufferable fans, but a blind hatred of all things Duke can prevent you from appreciating those things that, to borrow from Pete Gillen, make Duke, well, Duke. After all if you don't respect them at all then why get so excited when Maryland scores a victory?

There isn't much worth remembering about the last Duke game. Maryland probably would have been better off just heading to the team bus at halftime of the 52-76 drubbing. Chris McCray had probably his worst game of the year and combined with DJ Strawberry for 11 turnovers. Their dreadful play in the first half doomed Maryland and made the 2nd half, in which Maryland played Duke even, irrelevant. As we all know McCray is gone. Strawberry will have to play as well as he did against Virginia for Maryland to have a strong shot against Duke. Everyone is worried about JJ Redick and who will guard him now that McCray is out of the equation. They should be focused on who will check Sheldon Williams. As the Georgetown game illustrated without Williams playing well it is very difficult for Duke to win with its imbalanced offense. Williams outscored James Gist, Ekene Ibekwe, Travis Garrison and Will Bowers combined in the last game. If that happens again it doesn't really matter what Redick does on offense.

There are a few bright spots from that loss. Maryland outrebounded Duke 45-37 with 21 of those coming on the offensive end. If the Terps can do that again and finish on some of those putbacks it would be very helpful. Maryland was able to force Duke into 20 turnovers, including 5 by freshman point guard Greg Paulus. Paulus has looked very shaky in close games over the last few weeks and a road trip to the Comcast Center, which will be unlike anywhere he's played all year, may rattle him. If Maryland can keep it close till the end don't be surprised to see Paulus fold in the final moments.

Maryland's gameplan should be simple: don't turn the ball over 29 times like they did in the last game and guard the 3 point line. Do that and it will be a competitive game. Duke has endured three very close games in the last week and a half. Their three victories came by a total of 7 points. They had two grueling home games and a physical and challenging overtime win against Florida State at Cameron. With the Dukies coming off a draining win at North Carolina that saw them squander a large 2nd half lead and then come from behind in the waning moments to win it couldn't set up better for Maryland. I expect Duke to be a little slow and sloppy to start the game and if Maryland can exploit that, unlike in the NC State loss last week, then the Terps will have a good chance for the upset.

With Nik Caner-Medley and Mike Jones playing different roles than they did in the last game the Duke defense will have to make adjustments off of the limited film of the recent games. This gives Gary Williams a slight advantage since he knows what Duke is going to do. I expect Williams to toy with some lineups to exploit favorable matchups, you know Gary is going to pull out all the stops in this game since a victory would likely punch the Terps postseason ticket.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Williams passes Lefty

It was an emotional night for Gary Williams. He went from being afraid his team was going to get "blown out by 30" to basking in the glory of a postgame celebration to mark his place as the winningest coach in Maryland basketball history. He got choked up a few times while being interviewed by Bobby Cremins (on a side note, how can you not like Cremins? His "Gary won't panic!, Gary won't panic!" call was fantastic. He may as well been on the Maryland broadcast with Johnny Holiday) as the magnitude of his achievement dawned on him. This, like his reaction to the Georgia Tech win a few weeks ago, makes Williams' passion for his team and the Maryland program obvious. Captain Nik Caner-Medley presented Williams with a game ball and apologized along with his teammates for not getting him the win sooner. A few of the players seemed to realize that they were part of something special last night and a game they would remember for the rest of their lives.

It seems odd that in such a turbulent season that Gary Williams would achieve one of his most precious records, winning more games at Maryland than any coach in the program's history. Then again things have never come easy for Williams. He gave up a fairly cushy position at Ohio State to come back and take over Maryland's basketball program that had been run into the ground through corruption and mismanagement. The administration viewed the program as an embarrassment, something that needed to be minimized so as to not further tarnish the school's already tattered reputation. Williams went from a place where anything goes if you can win to a place where the administrators just wished the basketball team would go away.

Then the NCAA came along and punished Williams and Maryland for the past sins of others who came before him. The coach wondered to his assistants if he had ruined his career by coming back to his alma mater. His dream job had become a nightmare. Then Gary did what he always does: he ignored the naysayers chatter, redoubled his efforts and convinced his players that it was them against the world. No coach does better with adversity than Gary Williams. It's his milieu. After hearing thousands of people tell you what you can't do or what can't be done proving them wrong becomes as great a motivator as success. For coaching royalty like Mike Krzyzewski or Roy Williams things are different, they never have to bear the constant harassment or ingratitude of their own fans. They both have a phony and ingratiating personality that people like and so their sins get forgiven or overlooked entirely. Gary Williams doesn't really care about the adulation of a bunch of strangers so he doesn't spend energy trying to curry favor with the fans. For Williams if you're a Maryland fan you should cheer because you love the school, not because there is a cult of personality around its coach. For a man who coaches out of love for the sport and his university he understands the central tenant of big time athletics these days: it's all about business. People indulge winners and won't stand losers, your character or personality doesn't buy you a free pass from most fans.

When the negativity in the press or on the fan message boards reaches a peak it makes the fire inside Williams burn even hotter. Perhaps it is fitting that in a time that Williams has admitted was one of the most trying of his career he also has one of his grand accomplishments. It must make it bittersweet in some ways for Williams but that has been a constant in his Maryland career. Nothing comes easy for him, or without a personal price, and he wouldn't have it any other way.

Game Notes

It certainly didn't seem like the game would have a happy ending with how Maryland came out in the first half against Virginia. It was a start that was reminiscent of more than a few game last season when the opponent came out focused and stunned Maryland with a quick blitz of points. Down by 14 points just 5 minutes into the game Maryland looked well on its way to a fourth straight loss with its postseason hopes sinking into the abyss. Maryland steadied itself and Virginia got a little sloppy towards the end of the half and left the door open for the Terps to take the lead in the 2nd half. The Terrapins had been outrebounded 26-14, shot a putrid 31% and gave up 38 points in the half but were still in the game because they only turned the ball over 4 times in 20 minutes. It was a lesson that even if you can't shoot worth a lick if you play good defense and don't turn the ball over you still have a chance to win.

The game really didn't start to turn until just over 10 minutes left in the game with Virginia still clinging to their 8 point halftime lead. Maryland scored on four of its next six possessions to tie the game at 51. At that point you could sense that Virginia was wavering and DJ Strawberry delivered the punches to stagger them with 5 points in less than two minutes. Then Mike Jones, who botched a breakaway basket trying for a fancy reverse dunk, delivered the knockout with a clutch 3-pointer from the corner with 2:30 left in the game.

There were a number of players who came up big in the victory. DJ Strawberry is still forcing some bad shots but last night he ended up hitting a few of them for a career high 19 points. I have come to terms with the fact that we'll have to live with Strawberry having a nice game like tonight, when he looks All-ACC caliber, then a game where his out of control decision making costs Maryland a chance to win. You may be saying that puts too much responsibility on Strawberry's shoulders but that is how thin the margin is for this club. They can't afford him to have off nights when he is shooting 13 shots a game. He has improved his outside shooting, which wasn't a huge hurdle since his shooting was utterly atrocious last year, and has the best ability to create his own shot on the team but he needs to learn what is a good shot and what isn't.

Call off the bloodhounds, we've found Ekene Ibekwe's game. At the end of the game he was unstoppable and grabbed every rebound within a 10 foot radius. He had a double-double in the 2nd half alone. The interior players of Maryland had to exploit their athletic advantage on the blocks and Ibekwe certainly did that in the last 10 minutes. His bugaboo has been an inability to build on these kinds of performances but we can only hope this time is different. He'll need this kind of effort against Duke.

James Gist really struggled in the 1st half and took some bad shots in an effort to establish an inside game. He calmed down in the 2nd half and proved he is the best passer of the low post players by gathering three assists in the final 15 minutes. Even though he struggled with his shooting and rebounding he was able to help the team with a 4:1 assist to turnover ratio. For a big man that is impressive.

Perhaps the stealth MVP of the game is Parrish Brown. After only playing 3 minutes in the previous two games Brown came off the bench and provided a spark for Maryland. From 11:37 left in the 2nd half to the 3:34 mark Brown contributed eight solid minutes which saw Maryland erase an eight point deficit and go up by two. He only produced two points and two assists on the stat sheet but played solid defense on Virginia's guards and steadied the half court offense. Sterling Ledbetter had another horrible night and only played 3 minutes in the 2nd half, none after Brown went into the game. His defense is atrocious and he really isn't a starter quality player in the ACC, but Gary doesn't have much to work with these days. We might see Brown more against Duke if the matchups are good.

With this group you can never count on a victory being a start of something since they are so maddeningly inconsistent. I'm not sure struggling so badly in the 1st half against Virginia bodes well for the rest of the season, but the effort and poise this group showed in the 2nd half does justify some hope. If they had played that well in the second half of the prior two games they would have probably won both and been in the thick of the hunt for 2nd place in the ACC. With the razor thin margin this group will play with going forward every game will be tight and well contested. Get your antacid from the medicine cabinet, it's going to be a wild ride.

Offensive Rating: 106.4
Defensive Rating: 93.4

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

McCray Mythbuster

Now that Maryland is in the midst of a three game losing streak every reporter out there is writing articles about how the team is losing because of his absence on both the defensive and offensive end. For the last time Chris McCray was a nice roll player, a solid and experienced third year starter who could help you win games. He was not an elite player, nor was he the kind of player that made a mediocre team into a good team. Consider that in ACC games McCray was shooting just 38% from the floor and averaging only 12.8 points per game. Does that sound like the kind of player who is going to lead you to the NCAAs? Probably not. With that level of play McCray would have been unlikely to have made any All-ACC selections since that would put him in 22nd place in scoring.

We can talk about intangibles all day and not be able to quantify any of them. I find that too often when people have to point to intangibles to buttress a player's credentials they are trying to make a mediocre or merely good player into something they are not. McCray played good defense and was an adequate ball handler and passer. I'm not sure how many points that translates into and I doubt anyone else knows either. I'm convinced that even if you gave McCray credit for such nebulous traits the gap between he and his replacement wouldn't be as significant as people are pretending. Keep in mind that with McCray Maryland was 0-2 against teams with 9-3 ACC record and 3-0 against teams with an 8-19 record. The only games they could win were at home against the worst teams in the league. This group hand not proved it was capable of beating a quality opponent with McCray.

What does make a difference is the fact that Mike Jones was coming off the bench and adding an extra 7 to 9 points per game as a sixth man (in the last four games as a starter Mike Jones is averaging 14.3 points per game). Sterling Ledbetter has been getting the extra minutes that Mike Jones would have gotten as a sixth man and even more lately as a starter. In the last four games he has scored a grand total of seven points and sunk two field goals. He is a virtual non-factor on offense. Parrish Brown isn't even getting any minutes as a fourth guard which tells you most of what you need to know about his play. It isn't so much that Maryland can't replace McCray's scoring it is that they have no player on the bench who has the offensive game to replace Jones' contributions. That amounts to about 7 points less per game which would devastate any team except a few elite and deep squads. Maryland is currently very thin at shooting guard and only Jones truly has the skill set for that position. It makes Maryland's margin for error very thin these days. They can't afford off games from Caner-Medley, Jones or the assorted frontcourt starters (whoever they are at this point).

The most overrated rivalry in sports

That's right, it is time for Duke vs. North Carolina game again. Dick Vitale will again crow that it's the best rivalry in all of sports, not just college basketball. No one will admit that this has been one of the worst "rivalries" for the last eight years. Even in the national title year UNC couldn't do better than a split against Duke, in a year when a terrible Maryland team managed a sweep. This rivalry is more about selling hats and t-shirts than about competitive and intense games. There are probably a dozen or more rivalries that are more intense and competitive in college ball that don't have the appeal to the average frontrunning fan that these programs do, but just because these teams are marquee programs doesn't make the games any good. For them to be "great" games I would think the Tarheels would have to win more than three out of the last 18 games. The rivalry with Connecticut and even Maryland has produced better games over the last 5 years for Duke than any games with UNC.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Not so super Sunday

The method was slightly different but in the end the results were the same, a loss for the Terrapins. Maryland played with more smarts and with better effort against a very shaky NC State team but neither was enough to pull off what could have been a season changing victory. Now Maryland sits at 4-4 in the ACC and plummets to 7th place behind 4 upcoming opponents. They won't have much time to feel sorry for themselves as the surprising Virginia Cavaliers will be in College Park on Tuesday to play what could be a pivotal game for Maryland's postseason hopes. Judging by the postgame comments the players are still optomistic, or perhaps just deluded. We'll see on Tuesday.

It was a nip and tuck game for 40 minutes as neither team ever led by double digits. The Wolfpack had a horrible 1st half as they shot only 25% from the floor. Maryland was able to cultivate a 7 point lead in the first half but had a dreadful last four minutes saw them squander the cushion. Holding the ball with 24 seconds left in the half DJ Strawberry dribbled off his own leg and gave the Wolfpack a fast break opportunity. Instead of going into the half with possibly a 5 point lead it was only one point.

As with the previous game the guard play, with the exception of Mike Jones, is what lost the game for Maryland. Strawberry and Sterling Ledbetter were mostly ineffective on both ends of the floor. Strawberry did score a team high 14 points but he still has little sense of what is a good shot versus a bad shot. DJ wasn't recruited for his shooting ability but if he's going to dominate the ball like he has been doing he must make better decisions. He's not a great shooter and needs to pick his spots instead of forcing low percentage shots. In the 2nd half Strawberry took some terrible shots and went 1-6 from the floor along with 2 turnovers. With just over two minutes left in the game only down 3 points Strawberry was guarding Tony Bethel when Ilian Evtimov came out to set a screen. The shot clock was winding down and Bethel had few options other than shooting a 3-pointer but instead of going over top of the pick like Strawberry should have done he was lazy and slid underneath Evtimov. Bethel calmly drained a 3-pointer, his fifth of the day, and the game was sealed. Ledbetter and Strawberry gave up a combined seven 3-pointers by the opponent they were guarding, mostly Bethel. Ledbetter in particular was pitiful in trying to defend his man and was repeatedly out of position or beaten to the lane on dribble penetrations. Mike Jones and Caner-Medley are widely considered poor defenders but combined they only gave up two 3-point baskets.

Mike Jones did his best to keep Maryland in the game with two 3-pointers in under a four minute span late in the game. He is the best threat among the guards as Ledbetter is a virtual non-factor on offense and Strawberry is more an opportunistic scorer, even though he has been forcing shots the last few games. Maryland needs to run more screens and motion for Jones to get better looks at the basket. If Strawberry and Ledbetter continue to take more shots then Maryland will continue to lose.

Nik Caner-Medley was fighting off the flu which explains his slow start in the game. His late heroics almost were enough to send the game into overtime. He finished with a double-double and was very effective on the defensive boards. James Gist had another solid outing and we can only hope that it is a sign he is becoming a reliable inside presence Maryland desperately needs. He was effective, along with Will Bowers, in containing Cedric Simmons who only had 6 points. Ekene Ibekwe's disappearance is mystifying. In the first 10 minutes of the game he traveled and then later stepped out of bounds when he had a clear path to the hoop. He only scored 2 points on 1-4 shooting. I really don't have any answers as to why his play has dropped off so badly. It may cost him his starting job going forward.

The frontcourt didn't play great and with Ibekwe and Garrison contributing little to the offense these days it puts great pressure on Jones and Caner-Medley to carry the scoring load. In this contest, however, it was the backcourt that let Maryland down. As much as I love Strawberry's intensity he often fails to play with discretion and savvy. If he continues to force his play Maryland will struggle to win games. He and Ledbetter should focus on getting the ball to the players who can help Maryland win and right now that is Jones, Caner-Medley and James Gist.

Offensive Rating: 92.1
Defensive Rating: 101.3

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Difficult road

For a pack of ACC teams the second half of league play begins this coming week. Duke and NC State have separated themselves in the standings but a glut of teams follows after them in the standings with 5 teams at either 4-4 or 4-3. In the next two weeks a few teams will separate themselves and some will have easier roads than others. Let's examine the schedules from most difficult to least:

1. North Carolina(4-3): @Duke, Miami, NC State; home vs Duke, Maryland, UVA
Difficult road schedule for the Tarheels separates them from the other teams. Two games against archrival Duke left to play and home dates versus Maryland and Virginia don't make it any easier in Chapel Hill. Projection: 8-8

2. Florida State(4-4): @Duke, NC State, Miami; home vs Duke, Maryland, UVA
The difficult games are the same as UNC but they get to play Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech in the final eight. Projection: 7-9

3. Miami(5-3): @ Boston College, Duke, Maryland; home vs NC State, UNC, FSU
The only real breather is Virginia Tech at home. Consecutive road games against Duke and BC don't bode well. Projection: 9-7

4. Maryland(4-3): @NC State, UNC, UVA, FSU; home vs Duke, Miami, UVA
Toughest games are in College Park out of the final eight. No games versus the bottom three teams in the standings left however. Projection: 8-8

5. Virginia(4-4): @ Maryland, FSU, UNC; home vs BC, Maryland
Toughest games mostly at home and two home dates against VT and Wake Forest. Have a stretch of 3 out of 4 games on the road in mid-February. Projection: 8-8

6. Boston College(4-4): @UVA, NC State; home vs Miami
Clearly the best schedule of the middle of the pack teams. Four games against Wake Forest and Virginia Tech set them up nicely as does a home date with Clemson. Four out of the last 6 league games are in Chestnut Hill. Look for the Eagles to make a run going into the ACC Tournament. Projection: 10-6

Media Notes

John Eisenberg from the Baltimore Sun has a fairly accurate article on this disappointing collection of players for Maryland. The observations are spot on for anyone who has watched this group, the core of which is the 2002 and 2003 recruiting classes, the last 3 years. While Gary Williams is still fiery and animated on the sidelines there have been more than a few games this season in which you can sense an element of resignation come over the coach as his team slides into defeat. In past seasons Williams focus and passion would almost rise to maniacal levels during a hard fought game, but lately he's seemed weary, drained and perplexed as he paces the sidelines drenched in perspiration. In watching Williams for the past 16 seasons it is hard to imagine that after all the big games and intense pressure that he seems so dispirited after the tribulations of the last two seasons, but that appears to be the sad reality. With five returning regulars next season it won't truly be a fresh start for Gary Williams but hopefully he'll regain some of his enjoyment for coaching.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Terps disgust Williams

There was no ambiguity as to how Gary Williams felt after the 77-62 debacle against North Carolina. Williams said he was "disgusted" with how his team played in their first home game since January 21. I'm sure many Terp fans shared his feelings after watching one of the more wretched performances of the last few seasons, which there have been too many to choose from. I guess it serves me right given that I had written about their improved offense that this group of players would find a different way to lose against North Carolina. Sometimes the task in playing basketball comes down to something as simple as getting the ball through the hoop. This team has never been a collection of good shooters, with the exception perhaps of Mike Jones, but they collapsed in a spectacular fashion last night. It was another disheartening loss from a group that had produced more than their fare share of them.

One could start with the obvious problem which would be the dreadful 35% shooting, but it goes deeper than that. Why Maryland shot so poorly cannot be explained by simply saying they are not good shooters. Very few of the shots that Maryland took were "good" shots that had a decent chance of success. Little of the credit was due to North Carolina, which merely played adequate position defense for most of the night, most of it was extremely poor decisions by Maryland on offense. As Williams alluded to in his postgame comments the team rarely actually ran the offense in the half court. The settled for quick shots that had little chance of going in and would often press transition when Maryland did not have the numbers. They simply made North Carolina's job fairly easy given that they often only had to defend one or two passes before Maryland would chuck up a shot. The team seemed to have no patience or confidence that running the cuts and screens would allow them a better shot.

The defense in the half court wasn't particularly good either, although they forced the turnover prone Tarheels into giving away 24 . North Carolina also amassed 22 assists and shot 45% from the floor but the overall defensive efficiency for Maryland was 97.7, which isn't good but isn't horrible either. When your offensive efficiency is a putrid 81.8 then you won't win much if you play just mediocre defense.

The guard play was mediocre at best as both Sterling Ledbetter and DJ Strawberry struggled to orchestrate the ball movement in the half court. The both would often force passes and pick up their dribbles in bad positions. Not that their teammates helped them much by creating good movement or keeping the proper spacing. From top to bottom this club doesn't understand the basics of passing. Ledbetter is virtually no threat to score and shows poor understanding of the offense. Too often Strawberry is sloppy with his passes and ball handling and will force one-on-one moves when he shouldn't. I felt that Mike Jones was not used properly in the game and by the time he was shooting desperation threes when the game was already decided it was too late. Jones needs to have offensive sets run for him to give him good looks at the basket. He can't create much on his own. Gary Williams needs to recognize this and modify his offense to accommodate his personnel.

Nik Caner-Medley was coming off two 30 point games but you wouldn't know it for his dreadful shooting and poor shot selection he showed last night. Against the long and quick wing players for Carolina he struggled to score off the dribble. Caner-Medley is the kind of player that needs good matchups to really play well and he didn't have any advantage over the Tarheel defenders he saw last night. He got frustrated and began forcing bad shots in the second half when the team needed him to be a steadying force.

I'm at a loss to explain the disappearance of the frontcourt in the last few weeks. Ekene Ibekwe has seemed to regress and was a non-factor in the last two losses. He has been totally unable to develop any kind of consistency this season. James Gist struggled for most of the game but did finish with the best production out of the frontcourt with 11 points and 9 rebounds. Maryland must have more production out of both Gist and Ibekwe if they are to make a run at the NCAAs. Travis Garrison was his normal ineffective self and has also developed an annoying habit of shooting whenever and where ever he gets the ball on offense. Will Bowers played some solid defense on Tyler Hansbrough and clearly got under the skin of the freshman. He is without a doubt the most reliable low post defender on the squad.

The coaching staff didn't have a great night either. The team seemed totally unprepared for this game even though it was at home and they had three full days of preparation. I thought Williams failed to call timeouts when the game was going in North Carolina's favor and then wasted a bunch when it was already too late. It was an all around dreadful performance.

Given that Maryland really only has one game that seems to be a likely win in the rest of their schedule, Georgia Tech at home, it will be very hard for this group to make the NCAAs. With a road trip to NC State and a home game against Duke in the next 8 days it doesn't look very promising. With four road games out of the last six it is hard to be optimistic about their chances, especially for a team that plays poorly on the road.

Note on efficiency ratings:
These ratings are a measure of the points per 100 possessions that a team will score on offense or allow on defense. This enables us to examine how a team fares independent of its tempo or method of play. So therefore a rating of 97.7 means that in 100 possessions the team will score 97 points. Dean Oliver, now of the Seattle Sonics, has advocated this method to evaluate basketball teams and players.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Terps without McCray

It would be inevitable that stories regarding Maryland being hurt by the absence of Chris McCray would follow the first loss since his academic suspension. It would also be inevitable that these stories would make assumptions that are simply not true. Today a number of the local papers ran stories, in one form or another, about the defense faltering without McCray. Interesting considering Miami, Duke and Wake Forest didn't seem to have any problem scoring at will with McCray still in a Maryland jersey. Let us look at the offensive and defensive ratings for the last 6 games broken up into those with and those without McCray

With McCray
Offensive Rating: 98.5 Defensive Rating: 107.8

Without McCray
Offensive Rating: 113.7 Defensive Rating: 112.9

So the defense has been slightly more porous in McCray's absence, a difference of +5.1 in the rating formula. Part of this can be explained by the fact that both games without McCray (Georgia Tech and Temple) were very physical contests that resulted in lots of foul shots. In any game were many foul shots are taken the defensive ratings for both teams will be inflated. In the last two games opponents shot 83 free throw attempts while in the previous four they had shot 77. Some will argue this demonstrates worse defense, which it might or might not. Also consider that for the last four games that McCray played opponents shot 44% from the field and in the last two games he did not play opponents shot 40.5% from the floor. That 3.5% is nothing to sneeze at since it often amounts to the difference between a solid defensive team and a mediocre one. So when opponents were not getting to the foul line in the last two games the team actually did a better job defending in the half court.

Turning to the offensive end it is clear that the team has been much more productive in spite of the turnover problems since Jones has replaced McCray in the lineup. The rating actually has gone up 15.2 since the last game McCray played in, which is astonishing. A rating in the 90's is fairly poor for a team and would likely put you a the bottom of the ACC, while 113 would put a team near the top of the league and is an excellent number overall.

Also note that while the defense has gotten worse the differential between offensive and defensive rating between the two sets is better since McCray has gone out. I'm not suggesting that the team is better off without Chris McCray since that isn't true, but I am saying that his loss isn't as devastating to the defense, which was fairly mediocre with him, as some would like to claim. From an offensive perspective the team is far, far better off with Jones and Caner-Medley taking more of the shots, which I wouldn't have believed myself even a few weeks ago.

Chris McCray was a player who did many things well(defense, passing), a few poorly(outside shooting) and was excellent at one task (foul shooting). His absence won't effect the Terps like taking away Adam Morrison would have on Gonzaga or removing JJ Redick from Duke. While McCray was good he simply wasn't that kind of player.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Calgoon threatens reporter

Connecticut's head coach Jim Calhoun now apparently feels like he can lecture and bully the local media into reporting only what he wants. The latest from Calhoun, who seems to have gotten his lessons on free speech from the Taliban, is that Hartford Courant columnist Jeff Jacobs should not have gone on WFAN's "Mike and the Mad Dog" radio show to discuss the suspension of AJ Price and Marcus Williams for stealing laptops and trying to fence the stolen items.

You can listen to Jacobs recent interview here.

Jacobs reiterated his position that it made no sense that Williams was not also suspended for the season for his role in the laptop theft. He also referenced a claim by former coach Jerry Tarkanian that a UConn assistant told a recruit that Tarkanian was dying of cancer. In talking to reporters after Jacobs gave his interview on WFAN Calhoun said, "If he has enough [testicles] to come up, he better come up with a couple of armed guards, talking about malignant cancer." This was Calhoun trying to cast himself as the victim while acting like a bully.

Jacobs also contended that the Calhoun circle had whispered at various times that he was homosexual and racist. If you're going to do a hatchet job in sports those are two pretty good allegations to make, are they not? The sports information director, also known as "media sycophant", for UConn also said that Jacobs wasn't "qualified" to discuss the incident since he'd been off reporting on other things. Clearly the qualifications for speaking on the issue seem to begin and end with whether you work for Jim Calhoun.

It isn't surprising that Calhoun would start to feel he was above reproach sitting up in Storrs. After all he has won two national titles and over 700 games in his career. Whatever the fans of UConn can crow about are things that Jimmy C-Note has given them. There are no local professional teams and Connecticut is a state without much of an identity beyond Huskies basketball. The sports fans in the state either cheer for a New York or Boston team. UConn is the only game in town and therefore doesn't get the critical treatment that it deserves. Once you've been given a free pass by the local media I guess any legitimate questions about how you run your program would put you right into Nixonian paranoia mode.

Calhoun runs one of the sleaziest programs in college basketball. There have been infamous cheaters who didn't apologize for the way they did things, like the aforementioned Tarkanian, but Calhoun is different. He runs a sort of Tammany Hall of college basketball. The facade looks fairly good but behind it lies a thoroughly rotten and corrupt structure. Those close to it are too invested in the success to question the methods required to achieve the spoils. Meanwhile Calhoun sits at the top like a Tammany Grand Sachem gaining wealth and power while becoming more and more untouchable. As time goes on he gets more brazen and willing to skirt the rules. He'll play a felon, pay an AAU coach's "traveling team" of playground scrubs $25,000, invite the friend of a bigtime recruit for an official visit when he wouldn't get offers from a Patriot League program, steal the recruit from another school after another recruit of questionable character leaves him high and dry.

Calhoun will do whatever he can get away with and then joke to the press about it. He wants everyone else to know he's getting away with it too. He'll steal a recruit from St John's and then make a joke about them not being able to round up their players to make a charter jet in time. Hey, that's just Jim being Jim. He's just making a joke, even if he's the only one who is laughing. Of course when he is questioned for not getting Connecticut native Ryan Gomes, who went on to have a dominating career at Providence, he doesn't find that funny. Instead he degenerated into a foaming-at-the-mouth profanity laced rant against the reporter who mentioned it. I guess that is the double standard of a cowardly bully and a phony Irish huckster.

2006 football class

The national signing day is here for high school players who will be freshmen in the fall. Maryland's class was probably a slight disappointment given all the players who were highly ranked in the state that the Terps missed out on. Given that Maryland is coming off back-to-back losing seasons I think it isn't all that bad. The one weakness of this class is that it again failed to address the needs at offensive line. I won't list all the players in this class since you can look here to see this list or on FridgeTV to watch highlight film on the players. I'll just mention a few recruits that I am excited about.

Melvin Alaeze DE (6-2 280)
Baltimore, Md. (Randallstown HS/Hargrave Military)
Jewel of the class...elite DE who can rush the passer or stuff the run...has Warren Sapp kind of body...still waiting on NCAA clearinghouse eligibility decision...has classroom issues

Drew Gloster TE/WR (6-3 225)
Germantown, Md.(Good Counsel HS)
Fast and strong receiver...was strong Virginia Tech "lean"...enticed by Vernon Davis' success...can play H-back and eventually tight end...good run after the catch

Bruce Campbell DE/OT(6-7 285)
Hamden, Conn. (Hyde Leadership School)
Can play on either side of ball...will likely end up on offensive line...has the frame to add weight

Adrian Cannon WR (6-3 200)
Pontiac, Mich. (Avondale HS)
Large and quick wideout...has nose for the ball...aggressive in fighting off defender when going for catch...good hands and route running

Chris Clinton* LB (6-3 240)
Lakeland, Fla. (Evangel Christian HS/Fork Union Military)
Fast hard hitting linebacker in style of recent Seminoles like Ernie Sims...good instincts and aggressiveness...can cover, blitz or stuff run...excellent range

Morgan Green* TB(6-0 210)
White Plains, Md. (Lackey HS/Hargrave Military)
Broke Josh Allen's record for career rushing yards in Maryland...had to prep but enrolled in spring classes...well rounded back...good vision and burst...can catch well

Jeremy Ricker QB (6-2 201)
Hummelstown, Pa. (Bishop McDevitt HS)
A top QB prospect in Pennsylvania...has strong arm and surprising mobility...will scramble to find open man downfield...more a pocket passer

Da'Rel Scott TB (6-0 185)
Conshohocken, Pa. (Plymouth-Whitemarsh HS)
Rushed for 2,500 yards this season...track star with gamebreaking speed...poor man's Reggie Bush...could make instant impact on special teams like Steve Suter

Brian Whitmore LB (6-3 240)
Chesapeake, Va. (Oscar F. Smith HS)
Surprise pickup from Tidewater region...in the mold of LEO 'backer Shawne Merriman though not as athletic...picked Maryland over Virginia Tech

Alex Wujciak LB (6-3 235)
West Caldwell, N.J. (Seton Hall Prep)
Blue collar type...instinctual and aggressive...gets the most out of athleticism...takes good angles in pursuit...big strong middle linebacker

Still doubt who's behind the exodus?
Ralph Friedgen was interviewed on the John Thompson show on the local sports radio station in Washington. He said he liked this class and given that the team finished 5-6 for the second straight year it was a good group. He was asked by host Doc Walker if there was any truth to the rumors that a vendetta springing from a person who had been fired by the University was influencing Maryland's recruiting. Friedgen responded that there was some truth to those rumors and that is all he would say about it. Clearly all this was in reference to Derrick Williams and his father who was laid off by the University after being given chances at numerous alternative positions. The speculation that the exodus of local players to Penn State was fueled by a petty grudge by The Williams against the University of Maryland seems to be shared by Ralph Friedgen.