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.

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