Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Does the slipper fit?

The media frenzy over George Mason making it to the Final Four is now just about in the hangover phase. All the local hairdos have done their remotes from the Fairfax campus of Mason trying desperately to round up a few students to jump around like chimps for the cameras. The local sports radio hacks are asking breathlessly what the implications are for Mason's program, the Colonial league, mid-major schools and mankind's existential dilemma. The national media isn't much better because the sports establishment is terrified of a ratings disaster given the unimpressive quartet that is still left.

LSU has a team full of athletes and one fat kid who are mostly devoid of any basketball skills. Florida doesn't have even a single recognizable star on their team that the casual fan would be able to identify. UCLA can't seem to score more than 60 points a game and when they're on defense their games resemble a prison yard riot. None of them are pretty or polished teams. Some of the games may be exciting in a "how big of a set back for college basketball will this be?" kind of way. Call me a kill joy but the fact that a squad like George Mason is in the Final Four is a prime example of how mediocre college basketball has become.

The media love a good underdog story, even if they have to shape and massage a story to fit that description. No one will mention this week that when the NCAA released its Academic Progress Report (APR) in February that George Mason failed to reach the minimum score of 925. The Colonials won't face any punishment yet since the NCAA instituted "squad-size adjustment" producing a grace period of 4 years for teams that don't meet the standard. Everyone assumes that since these kids don't play in the big bad power conferences that they are actually something closer to "student athletes" than those just using college as a stop over to the NBA. The reality is they are not much different at all, except that they don't possess the talent to ever make a living playing basketball. Tony Skinn, the star of the team and famous testicle cheap shot artist, couldn't even explain to the media who the man his university was named after was in American history and could only produced the lone fact that Mason signed the Constitution. Too bad that is incorrect.

I suppose the kind of history that Skinn should be more concerned about is that the last time a mid-major school made a famous run to the semifinals it resulted in one of the most lopsided defeats in tournament history as Michigan State obliterated Penn 101-67 in the 1979 tournament. When Marquette made an improbable run to the Final Four behind Dwayne Wade they also endured one of the most lopsided losses in tournament history to a powerful Kansas team in the semifinals, 94-61. Problem is that George Mason doesn't have a player nearly as talented as Wade.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Final Four

For the first time since 2003 the ACC did not have a team advance past the Sweet Sixteen as Duke was upset by LSU and Boston College lost in an overtime thriller to Villanova. It caps a fairly unimpressive year for ACC basketball in what was clearly a down year for the conference. The Big Ten and Big East didn't fair much better as most of their teams flamed out early and neither number 1 seed from the Big East made the Final Four. A look at the four teams left reveals two from the SEC, a Pac-10 team and a mid-major school. It certainly doesn't validate the feelings of some ACC and Big East aficionados who feel that their conferences are clearly superior.

As for the games:

Duke's loss to LSU wasn't all that surprising. As I wrote earlier the Blue Devils were entirely too dependent on JJ Redick's scoring and the rest of the backcourt for Duke wasn't able to produce much of anything. Sean Dockery, Lee Melchionni and DeMarcus Nelson combined to score 4 points in the loss. No one will cry much for Duke but the officiating was fairly poor for much of the game as they allowed the interior play to turn into a Kung Fu match.

Boston College gave Villanova all they could handle before finally falling on a goal tending call by Sean Williams in the waning seconds. The lack of any dynamic backcourt players hampered BC all year and required them to play in many close games during the season.

The quality of the basketball in this years tournament is some of the worst in recent memory. The 50-45 win by UCLA over Memphis and the 62-54 win by LSU over Duke were poorly played monstrosities. In both those games no team shot better than 39% from the floor. It is true that UCLA, Duke and LSU are fairly good defensive teams, but Duke and Memphis were both top 30 offenses in efficiency in the nation. It was just atrocious basketball. Each team degenerated into a futile series of one-on-one NBA clearouts for their scorers. Only the large number of offensive rebounds in both games kept the score from looking like something from the pre shot clock era. The games may be exciting but let's hope the Final Four can showcase some good fundamental basketball.

UCLA and Florida are the two best teams among the Final Four and a title game between these two should be entertaining.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Still waiting on Aleaze

According to Heather Dinich in the Baltimore Sun Maryland is still waiting to find out if star defensive lineman Melvin Aleaze will qualify to play for the football team this fall. The NCAA clearninghouse has still not given its decision on Aleaze's application to include a grade that was not considered in his initial application. Recruits combine their SAT scores and grades to determine eligibility and if Aleaze's grade point average increases his current SAT score would probably be enough. Aleaze has attended at least three different schools in an attempt to qualify. Reports are that he will take the SAT again this spring. I have a feeling that it is getting less and less likely that Aleaze will ever qualify to play at Maryland or anywhere else. Maryland needs his pass rushing skills badly as the defensive line will be a trouble spot again this fall.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Requiem for a team

It was an ignominious end to an entirely forgettable season for the Maryland Terrapins 2006 basketball team. In a game that no one at Maryland, except for Debbie Yow, wanted to play in it seemed that the players, coaches and even some of the fans had no interest in continuing a meaningless post season in the NIT. Mercifully no one else, except Manhattan, cared about the outcome either. With the only tournament that anyone cares about playing later that day the embarrassing loss to the Jaspers wasn't even worth the notice of anyone outside of Maryland message boards. The game was so meaningless that the Washington Post didn't even bother to send the Maryland beat reporter to cover the game.

As for the actual game it was the same sad story for Maryland in all their losses this season. Shaky ball handling that lead to 20 turnovers, porous perimeter defense that gave up nine 3-point baskets, allowing the opponent to shoot 48% and score 47 points in the first half, and dreadful shooting to the tune of 39%. The fact that it came against Manhattan might make fans even more annoyed but to me it was a minor distinction from the poor efforts that became routine this season. For Maryland it was an outcome that should not have come as a surprise. They scheduled a game that the team didn't want to play on a Saturday morning after St. Patty's day and the first day of spring break for the students. It was almost set up for an embarrassing upset. You can blame the players for a lack of pride and self respect, they certainly didn't distinguish themselves with an effort that, considering the opponent, may have been the worst effort of the season, but the administration should have said thanks but no thanks to the NCAA who wanted to use Maryland to sell television right and tickets.

DJ Strawberry reverted to his midseason form with a slew of turnovers and bad decisions. His shooting was abysmal and his defense was indifferent. When the opponents starting backcourt scores 52 points then no one was playing much defense, especially when it is the level of talent that plays for teams like Manhattan. Thankfully his time at the point guard position is now over and Parrish Brown or Eric Hayes will take over that duty.

Mike Jones was almost a non-factor in the game and had only a single point at the half. His defense was awful, even by his modest standards. Parrish Brown had moments of acceptable play during the game but his size will always be a problem. You could have blinked and missed the last moments of Sterling Ledbetter's career as he played only 8 minutes in the game. His performance, like his whole time at Maryland, was barely worth mentioning.

Nik Caner-Medley struggled to exploit his size advantage for most of the game. He was a horrendous 2-10 from the floor in the first half and it isn't clear if his ankle still wasn't full healed from the sprain in the ACC tournament. My guess is that it was not. He was often defending a small guard in what was a terrible matchup for him and not a fair thing to ask a 6-8 small forward to do. He fouled out at the end of the game and deserved a more dignified exit for his career at Maryland.

It was really almost a senior night game as Travis Garrison played most of the 2nd half and finished with 21 points and 12 rebounds. James Gist was only used sparingly in spite of having 7 points and 6 rebounds at halftime. It is somewhat fitting that in his last game in an almost empty gym against a forgettable opponent that Garrison, a supreme disappointment as a player, would have his best game of the season. Ekene Ibekwe continued his poor free throw shooting and he needs another checkup with the shot doctor he working with in the offseason. He missed both critical free throws with under a minute left and Manhattan clinging to a 3 point lead. Will Bowers barely played and Gary Williams even resorted to walk-on Gini Chukura at one point.

It was somewhat fitting that the trio of Caner-Medley, Mike Jones and Strawberry went 13-40 from the floor. That gave Maryland little chance even though they dominated the small frontcourt of Manhattan on the glass. Maryland enjoyed a +20 rebound margin and shot 13 more free throws than the Jaspers, but none of that mattered.

The loss was in some ways very appropriate for a team that could never be counted on to produce consistent effort from game to game. The fans, and even at times it seemed Gary Williams himself, never knew what team was going to show up. This team wanted its season to end with the rout by Boston College and who knows in a few years no one may remember that they actually ended the season in an empty Comcast center with a game that never mattered.

In the coming weeks I'll have a roundup of the season and a brief outlook for next year. Stay tuned.

Friday, March 17, 2006

2006 all-star games

Want to get an early look at what we'll see on the floor next fall for the basketball team? Maryland recruits will be playing in two local all-star tournaments the Capital Classic and the Charm City Challenge.

The Capital Classic is an institution in the Washington area and I encourage everyone who can to go and support this event. When Michael Jordan came to town he not only screwed up the Wizards with his colossal ego but he almost ruined this storied tournament. When Jordan was here it became the Jordan Capital Classic and Nike threw it's media machine and money behind the tournament. When things soured between Jordan and the Wizards he took he ball and went home. He now has a competing tournament in New York City. You can find ticket information in the link above. Maryland recruits Greivis Vasquez and Eric Hayes will play in this event for the capital team along with Virginia Tech signee Nigel Munson. The national team will feature recruits from many major schools including Jamil Tucker from Virginia, William Graves from UNC, Josue Soto from FSU and former Maryland target Jerome Dyson.

The Charm City Challenge will feature all four Maryland recruits for the 2006 class and, along with Hayes and Vasquez, Landon Milbourne and Jerome Burney will all play on the "national" team. Eric Hayes' father Kendall Hayes, the recently retired coach of Potomac high school, will coach that team. Other ACC recruits include Dwayne Collins from Miami, along with Jamie Skeen and LD Williams from Wake Forest. That game is unfortunately in Towson. I'm going to try to make one or both games to give my readers a report on this important class of recruits.

NCAA notes

Syracuse and Oklahoma made early exits as I thought they would and Tennessee and Indiana both escaped by slim margins. I think UCLA will have a better run than I thought they would.

George Washington was down 18 points to UNC-Wilmington before a flurry of points and turnovers allowed them to tie the game and then win in overtime. Their total inability to defend in the half court was plain to see as John Goldsberry sliced and diced them for 9 assists and 14 points. When they started pressing and trapping Wilmington didn't adjust and the great ball movement they showed in the half court disappeared. I'd be shocked if Duke didn't blow out the Colonials.

The Big East has been a big bust so far as both Syracuse and Seton Hall were bounced from the tournament.

Let's not view the shellacking that Seton Hall got at the hands of Missouri Valley Conference no-name Wichita State as a vindication of the Mid-Major conferences. Seton Hall is the same team that got trashed by NIT participant Rutgers in the Big East tournament and last time I checked Wichita State was the higher seed. They should have won the game, folks.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

NCAA thoughts

I think this could possibly be one of the more entertaining tournaments in years because there are so many teams with major flaws that upsets may abound. On the other hand I also think in terms of the quality of the basketball this may be one of the worst tournaments in recent memory. Even the four number one seeds are deeply flawed teams. Duke is even more dependent on JJ Redick's scoring than they were at the beginning of the year and Krzyzewski's failure to develop Duke's bench will likely doom them. Connecticut is continually called the most talented team in college basketball yet rarely ever plays like it. They often played down to their competition and that was evident in games against South Florida, Louisville, Notre Dame, and in the Big East tournament towards the end of the regular season. No team has ever won a national title after losing its first game in the conference tournament. I doubt UConn will break that trend. Villanova is a fun team to watch and backcourt play usually determines a team's fate in the postseason. The uncertainty of Allan Ray's eye injury makes Villanova a hard team to handicap but I think they have the best shot at winning it all out of the number one seeds. Memphis is a very talented team with an excellent point guard but they lack post season experience and have not been battle tested as the other big conference teams have been.

Watch out for Ohio State as a sleeper pick for the Final Four. They have the depth and balance to make a run to the title game after winning the strongest conference in the nation. Iowa is also peaking at the right time but is prone to some putrid shooting stretches.

As for tourney duds I think that Indiana, West Virginia, Syracuse, UCLA, Oklahoma and Tennessee are all vulnerable to early exits.

Maryland in the NIT

Manhattan won their matchup with Fairleigh Dickinson for the right to play Maryland on Saturday morning at 11am. They won the regular season in the MAAC by going 14-4 but lost in their conference tournament to a mediocre St. Peter's squad. Like Maryland the Jaspers also lost one of their best players when leading scorer C.J. Anderson was suspended for academics in January. Anderson was the freshman of the year for the MAAC in 2005 and they have gone 6-8 since he went out of the lineup. The Jaspers are a young team with two sophomores, Jeff Xavier and Arturo Dubois, logging over 30 minutes a game. They are lead by senior point guard Jason Wingate who is their best outside shooter, though Xavier shoots almost twice as often.

Maryland will be more athletic than any team Manhattan has faced all year and with the kind of pressure defense that may cause lots of problems for their young players. Manhattan isn't terribly deep either and the tallest frontcourt player is Dubois at 6'8". If Nik Caner-Medley doesn't play and the experience of Wingate can steady the Jaspers on the road they may have a shot to keep it close against a Maryland team that clearly doesn't want to play in the NIT. The Comcast center will likely have only a few thousand in attendance so that may also help the Jaspers. I just love writing that name, Jaspers. Still it is more likely that Maryland will put forth only a token effort and still win by a large margin. In college sport you can never overlook the issue of motivation since it has a large effect on the outcomes. Maryland doesn't have much and could, though it is unlikely, find itself out with a surprise early exit just like Temple losing to Akron last night. Manhattan coach Bobby Gonzalez is one of the better coaches in college basketball so he will put something special into this gameplan to try and exploit Maryland's weakness. Unfortunately for Gonzalez Manhattan's defense is atrocious and gives up 3-point baskets at an even higher rate than Maryland. Manhattan will have to pressure the ball and get turnovers to compete which will be hard for them to do with a mediocre defense.

Coaches vs. Cancer

Maryland will host a regional of the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic next season. Other regional hosts include Texas, St. Johns and Michigan State. The 2nd tier teams that will play the hosts include: Alcorn State, Brown, Central Michigan, Chicago State, Hampton, Loyola (Md.), Navy, New Orleans, North Florida, St. Bonaventure, Vermont and Youngstown State. Interesting that the list includes two former Maryland assistant's who are now head coaches at their own program: Jimmy Patsos (Loyola) and Mike Lonergan (Vermont). I would be surprised if Maryland plays either, however, as Gary Williams doesn't like to play his former assistants.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Williams vs. Yow

So it has come to this? Anyone who has contacts at Maryland is probably well aware of the poor relationship between director of athletics Debbie Yow and basketball coach Gary Williams. It has simmered for a long time and probably took a turn to the nasty side around the time Williams was arrested for driving under the influence and then later lost in embarrassing fashion to UCLA in the second round of the 2000 NCAA tournament. Williams was under intense pressure for what fans felt was a program that could not "get over the hump" and advance past the sweet sixteen. Williams preceded Yow at Maryland and, as in most work situations, if you're not the bosses "guy" but they can't get rid of you you won't be one of their favorites.

The most recent flare up occurred when Williams declined a bid to the NIT only to be called out of the press room to take a phone call from NIT representatives who told him they had an agreement with the athletic department that Maryland would host a number of NIT games at Comcast center. Williams then returned to the press room and told the media that Maryland would be playing in the NIT. Williams probably relented to pressure from the NCAA, who now owns the NIT and is trying to rebrand the event, to participate and give the NIT a marquee program to sell to ESPN.

In the Baltimore Sun representatives from the athletic department, Debbie Yow and Larry Leckonby (who is referred to as the senior associate athletics director, whatever that is) both disputed Williams' claim that he was unaware of the commitment to the NIT.

"Departmental policy is that no such bid is submitted without the concurrence of the head coach," Yow said. "That's with any sport."

While Williams maintained he was never asked before Sunday night if he wanted to play in the NIT, Leckonby said yesterday that Maryland director of basketball operations Troy Wainwright was in every NIT planning meeting.

"He actively participated," Leckonby said. "I can't tell you what their relationship [he and Williams] or communication might be."

So on the one hand we have Gary Williams saying that there was "No way" he would accept a bid to the NIT before finding out his team's NCAA fate and the athletic department claiming that a member of the basketball staff had been involved in the negotiations. The position of the athletic department might be more convincing if they didn't admit through their statements that they never talked directly to Williams about the NIT invite. Notice in Yow's carefully worded statement that she never said she had confirmed with Williams himself that he wanted to accept the bid before committing the team to play and host games.

What we're left with is either a pathetic attempt at blame shifting by some clown in the athletic department or that Gary Williams is lying. I'll put my trust in Williams over someone who is willing to give quotes in the paper blaming what amounts to a middle manager for this fiasco.

The thinly veiled hostility, or brazen hostility in this case, that the athletic department continues to show for the basketball program is hard to fathom. There is clearly a personality conflict at work here with Yow and Williams getting along about as well as cats and dogs. The amazing part of this latest development is that the athletic department was so willing to conduct a public relations campaign to undermine Williams in the local media. They readily and enthusiastically gave quotes to the Baltimore Sun. In my opinion it made them look unprofessional and incompetent. What other athletic department would not directly consult the head coach to determine if they would play in a meaningless postseason tournament?

Leckonby said in the paper, "Bottom line is, at 8 o'clock, they didn't think they'd accept the invitation, which is fair and valid. You don't have to accept. You don't have to play."

But from all the talk about how these games could make the athletic department $80,000 each and that the basketball program funds almost every other non-revenue athletic program it certainly doesn't seem like it was a decision for the players or coach of the basketball team. In the end that is what matters, money. The athletic department treats the basketball program as a cash cow while focusing huge amounts of energy promoting and cultivating the football program that usually barely breaks even and requires tons of extra resources.

The two programs can coexist and even flourish together, but not when the atmosphere is so thoroughly poisoned by politics in the athletic department. If Yow thinks she is going to get $25 a ticket from me plus $10 for parking she is sorely mistaken. I'm not going to reward this ridiculous and childish stunt by the athletic department with my money.

Monday, March 13, 2006

No prom date

I don't think that Maryland got snubbed by the selection committee. I think the committee did make some odd and indefensible decisions but leaving Maryland out for the second year in a row was not one of them. When Chris McCray flunked off the team Maryland was in big trouble because almost the entire first half of the season would be discounted by the committee. Without McCray the last half of the schedule, that included seven road games, would take precedent. Maryland did not play well enough in those last 12 games (5-7) to warrant a selection to the NCAA tournament.

Gary Williams initially announced to the press that Maryland had declined an invitation to the NIT but then was interrupted in the middle of the press conference by a phone call from NIT representatives and changed his mind. The NCAA, which now owns the NIT, probably put pressure on Maryland to participate as a high profile program that would make ESPN happy. I'm sure the possibility of extra ticket and parking fees perked the interest of the always revenue hungry Debbie Yow as well. It was reported that Maryland had already committed to a home game at Comcast center should they fail to reach the NCAAs again yet Gary Williams was not even aware of the arrangement. The players and Williams voted against playing in the NIT due to injuries suffered by Nik Caner-Medley and DJ Strawberry. This is another example of the disconnect of the athletic department and the basketball team. I know of no other university that has such poor relations between the management of the athletic department and the gold standard and money making sports program on campus.

It is unclear whether Caner-Medley would be available in the NIT which would start Saturday at 11am against the winner of the Manhattan and Fairleigh Dickinson game. Maryland played Fairleigh Dickinson in the first game of the year and won 111-85 at Comcast. I understand why Williams and the players did not want to play in the NIT and their reversal was probably due to public relations and political reasons, not because they want to participate in the NIT. There is little to gain for Maryland since most of the corps of next years team are already juniors and there are few younger players that would benefit from the extra experience. The idea that teams benefit from the extra play is probably one of the more overrated theories on college basketball. Most NIT teams are just as mediocre the following year even if they do well in the NIT. Players like Ekene Ibekwe and Will Bowers are not going to be appreciably better for having played a few games in the NIT against teams like Manhattan. What you see of them now is likely what you're going to get next year, for better or worse.

I have been busy the last two days but will have a write up about the Boston College debacle in a day or two and maybe my thoughts on the NCAA tournament.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Chips falling into place

There are two kinds of games that don't lend themselves to much analysis: a blowout loss in which nothing goes right and the kind of win Maryland had over Georgia Tech last night. The Terps cruised to an 82-64 victory which really wasn't even that close. Whatever Maryland did seemed to work while Georgia Tech had trouble doing anything right. Maryland got a little complacent with a lead that ballooned to almost 30 points in the 2nd half and the reserves got a little careless with the ball but it wasn't really enough to quibble with. Once again Gary Williams has found a way to motivate this squad and get them to play their best basketball of the year at a critical time. At no point in the season, even before Chris McCray flunked off the team, has Maryland had such a complete effort as they did last night.

Nik Caner-Medley is playing like a senior who doesn't want to end his career in the NIT. His intensity and leadership has been kicked up to a new level in the last week. He had some excellent passes and used them to rack up 5 assists to go along with 20 points and 9 rebounds. He is playing the best basketball of his career in the last half of this season and has matured from a somewhat selfish player who played no defense and had terrible shot selection to a heady senior leader. It is a metamorphosis that all Maryland fans should take a moment to appreciate.

Mike Jones was in the zone last night. When Jones gets hot he can be unstoppable and he made several baskets with Georgia Tech defenders right in his face. His 13 first half points help establish a comfort zone for Maryland as they went into half with a 15 point lead. Jones is another player who is maturing before our eyes. He scored 19 points and grabbed 7 rebounds but he also played some of his best defense of the year and didn't turn the ball over once in 30 minutes of play. As the only defender back with Georgia Tech having a 3-1 advantage on a fast break Jones stripped the ball carrier and got an outlet pass that led to an easy dunk on the other end for the Terps. There is no way Jones would have been able to do that last year.

DJ Strawberry has also reinvigorated himself the last week. He had one of his best games of the season with 15 points, 7 assists and only 2 turnovers. He also added 3 steals and played ferocious defense. He got 9 points at the free throw line where he only missed one shot all night. It was the perfect game for Strawberry who seemed to be more of his old self on defense and more in control running the offense.

Ekene Ibekwe and James Gist were both limited by foul trouble as they both fouled out in the 2nd half. It limited their effectiveness as they scored 10 and 4 points respectively. Gary Williams has indicated that he wanted them to be aggressive in blocking shots and so the fouls can be explained as the byproduct of that order from the coach. In spite of that they played well and continue to improve on high screens and with their help defense. Ra'Sean Dickey only scored 5 points in the 2nd half and, with the help of double teams, he was effectively controlled.

Will Bowers continued to play solid low post defense as he has the last few months. He also added 5 points with some nifty low post moves. You would expect a 7 footer to rebound a little better but let's not get greedy at this point.

Sterling Ledbetter and Parrish Brown both struggled at times in mop up duty. Travis Garrison was yanked from the game after turning the ball over on an inbounds play and struggled in the 2nd half after Ibekwe and Gist fouled out.

It is widely reported that Maryland will have to also win against Boston College tonight to secure a spot in the NCAA tournament. That may or may not be true depending on what happens in other tournaments around the country. Maryland beat Boston College way back in December in a close game at Comcast center. Ekene Ibekwe led the team with 21 points and 9 rebounds in that contest but BC center Sean Williams was suspended for that game. His height and shot blocking ability may hinder Maryland's frontcourt. Craig Smith dominated the last meeting so I would expect Will Bowers to see some more playing time for defensive reasons. I like Maryland's matchup at the guard positions and if Mike Jones can continue his hot shooting it gives Maryland a decided edge. I think it will be another close, nip and tuck kind of game. Maryland has some momentum and since this is Boston College's first ACC tournament I would go with Maryland as the winner.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Bubble Update

Syracuse likely secured a NCAA invite with a victory over Connecticut, who suddenly doesn't look like a national title contender.

George Washington got blown out by Temple in the A-10 tournament making what was a one bid conference now a two bid league.

Minnesota's win over Michigan puts the Wolverines in a precarious position and will help Maryland by raising the Gopher's RPI.

Wake Forest shocked Florida State with a loss that can only damage the Seminoles at-large hopes. It is another sub-100 loss for FSU who cannot afford more bad losses with a weak strength of schedule. I think unless more bubble teams play their way out of a bid that FSU is now bound for the NIT with a weak RPI.

Third time could be a charm

Interesting contrast with last season. Maryland stands in a better position this March in spite of lacking a season sweep, or even single victory, against Duke. They faced a first round opponent in Clemson that had swept them in the regular season and it was widely believed they only needed one win in the ACC tournament to secure an invite. We all know how that turned out.

This year things could be different and I have a feeling, as scary as it is, that Maryland will win tonight and put themselves into the NCAA tournament. Maryland matches up well with Georgia Tech and I doubt the Jackets have a upset in them having lost four of the last five games. The only reason the last game went to overtime was that Maryland had over 26 turnovers. If Maryland doesn't turn the ball over 20+ times they will win, simple as that. Both previous contests were physical with heaps of foul shots and I expect this game to follow the same script. Maryland needs to continue its improved perimeter defense to prevent Anthony Morrow from having a good game. Morrow can't create his own shot with any consistency but can do damage with his spot shooting. Ra'Sean Dickey has had two great games against Maryland's frontcourt and will probably have another tonight. He can't beat Maryland alone though.

Some interesting articles in the Baltimore Sun and Washington Times in which players admitted they were not playing hard on defense all year. It shouldn't be a shock to anyone who watched them I suppose but it is impossible to understand that even after last season this group didn't understand they could not just outscore opponents.

"I think people knew that, but it just wasn't a point of emphasis," junior guard D.J. Strawberry said. "It just wasn't a main point. Everyone knew we had to play defense, but we were going to outscore everybody. We lucked up and outscored some teams and played terrible defense and still won."
I like DJ Strawberry but I just have to read that and shake my head in disbelief.

Blogger turned sports journalist Yoni Cohen had good summary of how the modified RPI formula has benefited some mid-major teams, most notably the Missouri Valley Conference, and inflated their ratings going into this season. With the MVC being a hot topic these days it is mandatory reading. My feeling is that the only MVC team that truly deserves an at-large bid is Northern Iowa. They have wins against Iowa and LSU to their credit, yet also lost to Indiana State which is 161 in the latest RPI. No other MVC teams have impressive out-of-conference wins with the top four quality victories being George Mason (by Creighton), Western Kentucky (by Bradley), Kent State (by So. Illinois) and Northwestern St. (by Wichita St.). That doesn't sound like an conference that deserves four or more NCAA bids to me. Maryland alone has more impressive out-of-conference wins than the top 4 teams in the MVC combined.

All this has me feeling that if Maryland can win tonight and avoid an embarrassing loss to Boston College tomorrow the Terps will be dancing again. Root for teams like Nevada and George Washington to avoid upsets in their tournaments so that they won't gobble up at large bids. Whatever happens it will make for one of the more interesting selection Sundays in a while.

Speaking of George Washington, head coach Karl Hobbs is in damage control mode after a devistating article in the Washington Post this weekend about senior forward Omar Williams and his dubious academic record. Nice to see Hobbs use the race card to defend his actions, just like John Thompson used to do at Georgetown. The folks over in Foggy Bottom are upset at the timing of the article and I guess it isn't pleasant to be confronted with the sordid truth about how they have built their program.

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim went ballistic yesterday in a post game news conference after senior Gerry McNamara hit an improbable 3-point basket with only seconds left in the game, McNamara traveled before he shot the ball but Boeheim wasn't complaining about that. Boeheim said that Syracuse wouldn't have "won 10 f*cking games" without McNamara. When Boeheim let lose the profanity there was an audible gasp from the press corps. The problem is that McNamara is overrated, probably one of the most overrated players in the nation, and if they are a 10 win team without him then they certainly don't belong in the NCAA tournament. McNamara is shooting a putrid 36% from the floor and only 33% from 3-point range yet shot over 270 times from outside the arch. It would be charitable to call McNamara mediocre and without a complimentary player like Carmelo Anthony or Hakim Warrick he has struggled even more.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

2006 All-ACC

The ACC announced their postseason All-ACC teams yesterday and as always there were a few surprises.

First Team (1st Team Votes)
J.J. Redick, Duke* (108) 324
Shelden Williams, Duke* (108) 324
Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina* (108) 324
Craig Smith, Boston College (91) 304
Sean Singletary, Virginia (51) 262
*unanimous 1st-team

Second Team
Al Thornton, Florida State 240
Guillermo Diaz, Miami 207
Justin Gray, Wake Forest 194
Jared Dudley, Boston College 176
David Noel, North Carolina 127

Third Team
Eric Williams, Wake Forest 120
Cameron Bennerman, NC State 106
Robert Hite, Miami 104
Nik Caner-Medley, Maryland 84
J.R. Reynolds, Virginia 54
Reyshawn Terry, North Carolina 54

Honorable Mention (20 or more points)
Anthony Morrow, Georgia Tech 41
Alexander Johnson, Florida State 37
Cedric Simmons, NC State 25
Zabian Dowdell, Virginia Tech 23
Coleman Collins, Virginia Tech 21

I can't really quibble with the 1st team too much though I think I would have placed Al Thorton on the 1st team instead of Sean Singletary. Understand that the voting for All-ACC is mostly based on a player's numbers in conference games since teams like Florida State play one of the weakest out of conference schedules in college basketball it isn't useful to include the points a player gets against a school like Liberty. When the ACC played the traditional round robin format it was the best way to judge a player and even with imbalanced schedules it is still the best standard to judge players.

From the 2nd team on my choices would be:

2nd Team
Sean Singletary G Virginia
Robert Hite G Miami
Justin Gray G Wake Forest
Nik Caner-Medley F Maryland
Jared Dudley F Boston College

3rd Team
Guillermo Diaz G Miami
Eric Williams F Wake Forest
J.R. Reynolds G Virginia
Alexander Johnson F Florida State
Jamon Gordon G Virginia Tech

Honorable mention
Reyshawn Terry F North Carolina
Ra'Sean Dickey F Georgia Tech

As you can guess when comparing the two I don't think much of David Noel or Guillermo Diaz. Noel is one of those players with mediocre stats on a very good team who was honored because he is a senior who blossomed into a solid player off the bench. You can yack about intangibles all you want but he isn't in the top 20 in scoring nor in the top 10 for rebounding. Jamon Gordon has all those intangibles people crave and has better production in most major categories, he just doesn't play for Baby Blue. Diaz is a gunner who only plays on one side of the court and his obsession with scoring really hurt Miami late in the season. Robert Hite was far more important to the fortunes of the Hurricanes.

Another interesting note is that the last place team had two All-ACC selections. That has never happened before in the history of the ACC. You don't often see a team like Wake Forest that has some very good talent fail so utterly over the course of a season. Makes you wonder if too many players on that team were just going through the motions for Skip Prosser.

Nik Caner-Medley certainly deserved the honor of an All-ACC selection. He has scored in double figures in each of the last 14 ACC games for Maryland. I'll write more about Nik in the post season round up in the coming weeks.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Stayin' alive

As quickly as the season went south in 2005 with three straight losses culminating in a NIT appearance the 2006 season has turned around for the better. The Terps were not even being talked about after getting trashed by North Carolina just last Sunday at Chapel Hill but two good games later and Maryland is one of the teams on the cusp of a NCAA invite. As of this morning Maryland sits with a decent RPI of 47, which puts them in a historically good position (more on that later in the week), and a with good matchup with 11 seed Georgia Tech in the ACC tournament on Thursday. The Terps have more work to do but they are in a good position to play their way back into the NCAAs this week.

The game was a see saw of emotion for Maryland as they outplayed Virginia from the opening tip till about the 10 minute mark in the 2nd half. With Sean Singletary picking up his fourth foul with 16 minutes left and Virginia trailing by 18 points you would think the game was over but feeding off the emotion of the final ACC game at UHall and some phenomenal play from JR Reynolds the Wahoos made an astonishing 20-5 run and tied the game at 62. A clutch 3-pointer by Mike Jones with just over a minute left turned out to be the deciding basket as Maryland pull out a 71-70 squeaker.

The defense has improved slightly over the last two games holding opponents to under 40% shooting in back-to-back games for the first time in over a month. The defense faltered during the period when UVA closed the gap and tied the game but the players bolstered their efforts in the last two minutes and didn't give Virginia any good looks at the basket. The frontcourt posted an impressive 9 blocks and the backcourt helped with 5 steals, though there were too many silly fouls during Virginia's furious comeback. Maryland has seemed to find their indentity in these last two games. They don't shoot outside very much, run more half court sets and play aggressive defense, much like Boston College with less talent. They have gotten clutch baskets and timely defense in the last two games which they were not getting February.

How did Maryland pull out the game? A good start is that they didn't have 20+ turnovers. The backcourt played within their abilities for most of the game and finished with 21 assists and only 12 turnovers. That gave them a chance to win even though UVA grabbed 18 offensive rebounds and got 24 free throws. If the team can continue to be careful with the basketball they will give themselves a decent chance to get to the ACC semifinals and a likely NCAA bid. Shooting 49% from the floor and taking 26 free throws certainly helps but defense and ball handling are more crucial to the success of this team. They amassed an 18 point advantage because they were shooting over 60% for the game, a number that wasn't going to last. A team can get away with being sloppy on defense when they are shooting that well, but once it dries up that lead will evaporate just as quickly.

DJ Strawberry, Parrish Brown and Sterling Ledbetter had solid, if unspectacular, performances, but that is all Maryland needs from them. They hurt the team by trying to do more than that. They struggled to guard JR Reynolds, a streaky shooter who can get in a zone and carry his team for a game, but limited Singletary and the rest of UVA's backcourt. Together they finished with 8 assists and 4 turnovers, a ratio that Gary Williams can live with.

Besides the game winning shot Mike Jones had a decent offensive performance. He had what looked like a minor bruise after a collision and missed some time in the 2nd half. It was obvious how impotent Maryland's offense is without Jones on the court. Perhaps the team's defense is worse with Jones but Maryland doesn't have any other player that can stretch the opponent's defense or command the kind of defensive attention that Jones does. In one sequence three Virginia defenders collapsed on Jones in the lane and he found Ibekwe for an easy dunk. You can't ask Jones for much more than his 13 point, 7 rebound and 4 assist performance. He seems to be a little worn down from all the bumps and bruises that come from starting and playing more minutes than he is used to playing. Maryland will need him healthy for the ACC tournament.

Nik Caner-Medley is perhaps coming into his own as a team leader and was instrumental in exhorting his teammates to not let the game slip away in the waning moments. His jersey "popping" antics at the end of the game were not appropriate and he almost got plunked with an orange for his taunts. He didn't shoot very well from the floor but has the best ability to get to the foul line of any player on the team. He was a perfect 12-12 from the line and many of those were critical points with Jones on the bench and Maryland's offense stagnating. His continued leadership and scoring will be needed in the next game versus Georgia Tech.

Ekene Ibekwe was able to score around the basket by using his athletic edge over Virginia's frontcourt. His freethrow shooting was atrocious and he would have probably lead the team in scoring had he been able to convert a decent number of his freethrows. His shooting form has reverted to the exaggerated herky jerky motion that limited him last season. He needs another check up with his shooting doctor. He was weak on the glass, but none of the frontcourt were particularly good in that regard. With 32 minutes of play one would expect more than five rebounds.

James Gist only took 3 shots all game and was limited by foul trouble. Gist is only a sophomore but has a tendency to disappear from week to week. He needs to find a level of consistency in the next few games somehow. He did have a critical block on Sean Singletary in the closing minutes of the game. For only playing 19 minutes his 5 rebounds isn't bad.

Travis Garrison is producing a little more off the bench the last few games. His 7 points and 5 rebounds are about what Maryland needs from him off the bench with Will Bowers languishing. He also added four blocks to his nice bench totals. He isn't really a great low post defender but his superior bulk makes him a nice counter to the spindly Ibekwe and Gist.

This team has a way of surprising you, both good and bad, just when you think you have them figured out. I hesitate to observe that it does seem like they have some confidence back and are playing with a purpose. The coaches have seemed to find a style of play that fits with the talent on the team. The Terps are not a great team, no team sweating an NCAA invite this time of year is particularly good, but they are playing well enough at the moment to be heading in the right direction for the ACC tournament.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Offensive Ratings

Here are the current offensive ratings for ACC games only:

Nik Caner-Medley: 109.9
Mike Jones: 100.6
James Gist: 108.4
Ekene Ibekwe: 101.4
Will Bowers: 90.3
DJ Strawberry: 80.3
Parrish Brown: 62.1
Sterling Ledbetter: 57.8

Team O-Rating last game
Maryland: 98.2
Miami: 93.5

Gist's high rating is mostly due to the fact that he is shooting 50% from the floor, best among the starters, and doesn't have a large number of turnovers. Mike Jones doesn't have a great rating for the opposite reasons, he turns the ball over and his shooting has dropped to 40% from the floor with his recent slide. By comparison to other ACC players the numbers of all the starters are not great. Players like Sheldon Williams and JJ Redick are in the 120's and other top players like Craig Smith, Al Thorton and Guillermo Diaz are in the 110-120 range. Even Josh McRoberts, who benefits from being on the same team as Williams and Redick yet is fairly mediocre, is 117.8 in the ratings. The ratings don't tell you everything but they are useful guides.

Maryland pieces together win

It wasn't a great effort but it was enough to keep Maryland's slim NCAA hopes alive. The offense was slightly above the recent thoroughly terrible efforts against North Carolina and Florida State, but it won't scare anyone. Shooting just over 40% isn't going to win you many games nor is only hitting two out of thirteen 3-point shots. Maryland's defense harassed and fatigued Miami's guard trio enough to keep them from shooting above 40% from the floor and 37% from 3-point range.

Maryland shot 15 more freethrows than Miami while only committing 5 fewer fouls than the Hurricanes. Five of those fouls came in the last 30 seconds as Miami was forced to foul to stretch the game out. The Terps were much more efficient in getting to the foul line and once there they hit 80% of their freebies. It helped to offset Maryland's poor shooting and would be very useful in the next few games if it continued. Maryland prevented Miami's frontcourt from doing damage on offensive rebounds as Hamiliton and King had 9 offensive rebounds but only managed 8 points combined. In a nip and tuck game these little things were enough to pull out a win.

Maryland's careless ballhandling almost cost them the game as they coughed up 20 turnovers yet again. Over the last 5 games Maryland has averaged 21 turnovers per game. It is axiomatic, but a team will not win on the road with that many mistakes. Sterling Ledbetter twice threw the ball out of bounds without a single player touching the ball, which is quite a feat with nine other ACC caliber players on the floor. DJ Strawberry didn't play out of control as he had in the previous two games and had a decent night defending Guillermo Diaz, drawing two offensive fouls on Diaz. There was a fair amount of yapping going on between these two. The halfcourt offense wasn't great but Ledbetter and Strawberry didn't dominate the ball like they had in the previous two losses and so they gave the other players on the team a chance to contribute. It is tough to figure out the role of Parrish Brown right now. He is being used in spot duty even though Ledbetter is at best a mediocre defender and virtually no threat to score.

Nik Caner-Medley had a nice night for what may be his last game in Comcast, though a possible home game in the NIT looms. He started off the game very well by getting some good drives to the basket and scored 12 of his 18 points in the first half. Then his teammates forgot about him and he was less of a factor in the 2nd half. This has happened in a number of games recently. I don't know if Caner-Medley is wearing down a little given that he's averaged 38 minutes in the last six games, but there isn't really much of an option coming off the bench right now. He's done his best to carry Maryland since McCray flunked off the team and has done an admirable job. He's the only player with a serious shot at All-ACC honors.

Mike Jones has struggled with his shooting lately and didn't make many shots last night either. Going 9-35 in the last three games isn't good enough. Maryland's offense is fairly impotent without Jones scoring from outside or getting to the foul line. If Gary Williams is going to rely on Jones for next season it would be nice to see more from the junior in this stretch run.

Ekene Ibekwe had an effective night and was one point from another double-double. He grabbed seven rebounds in the 2nd half and had several critical rebounds in the pivotal moments of the game with Maryland trailing. He still gets manhandled by bigger stronger post players which requires him to play with a tenacity that he can't always muster.

James Gist got into foul trouble and wasn't much of a factor until the final moments when he hit what turned out to be the game winning shot. Gist has the ability to step out and hit those mid-range shots and if he was able to refine his inside game and defense he could be a superstar. Right now he can't find any consistency.

Travis Garrison got the start as a senior and looked like he cared about the outcome for the first time in a while. He still takes ill advised shots and won't pass out of the post but hit some crucial freethrows in the 2nd half. If he can provide about 6-8 points and 5-7 rebounds off the bench he'll help Maryland's NCAA chances dramatically.

With an RPI that sits at 51 Maryland still has the best shot of getting into the NCAAs of the remaining bubble ACC teams. Florida State had a huge win against Duke last night but still has a precarious RPI of 54 and a putrid non-conference schedule. They must beat Miami to keep their hopes alive. Maryland needs to win at Virginia, who is struggling badly, and get to 8-8 in the conference. As a 6 or 7 seed in the ACC tournament Maryland can win in the first round and will then get a bid to the NCAAs baring a string of upsets in other conference tournaments. Surprisingly this team isn't dead yet.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Senior night

It now appears that Chris McCray will not attend the senior night ceremonies at the Miami game tonight. Gary Williams told the press last night that McCray would not attend due to "personal reasons" avoiding what could have been a highly embarrassing situation. It is impossible to predict what the reaction would be from the Comcast crowd but I doubt it would have been a warm ovation for McCray. Williams and McCray made the prudent decision.

At the same time consider that if McCray attended tonight that three of the four seniors being honored would have been arrested in their time at Maryland. Travis Garrison still has charges pending against him for assaulting a woman in a bar. With the possible exception of Caner-Medley all have been major disappointments this season. I'll have a full article about this 2005 senior class in the coming weeks as their careers come to a close, the ones that still have college games remaining anyway. No one would have remotely considered this class to turn out the way it did and that deserves a full article to explore what a colossal failure the group turned out to be.

As for the game Miami is fading fast and saw their NCAA hopes vanish with four straight losses in 11 days. They have not played since last Wednesday and haven't been a very good road team this year. I'd be surprised if they could muster the kind of game they had at North Carolina in the middle of January. The deciding factor could be if Maryland's upperclassmen just decide to pack it in and shuffle off to the NIT. If they are still focused and determined to make a run at the NCAAs I think they will beat Miami, who has lost by an average of 15.5 points in its last two road games.

Vernon "Cyborg" Davis

Doc Walker has all kinds of goofy names for describing a great football player like stone canine and cyborg, but in the case of Vernon Davis he may be right. Davis astonished scouts with a 4.38 40 time, 42 inch vertical leap and 33 reps benching 225lbs. He may have moved himself into the top 10 in the draft. Davis' publicity already helped Maryland land one recruit (Drew Gloster) and the buzz that Shawne Merriman and Davis are getting in the NFL should help the staff sell that coming to Maryland just might be a good way to play professional football.