Monday, December 04, 2006

Young Terps Stumble

Surely no one thought that Maryland was going to go undefeated this season. With young players at key positions the progression of a team is never linear and there will be inevitable setbacks. After three wins over major conference opponents to start the season the Terps got into a game with a scrappy opponent that wanted to prove something by beating the first ranked opponent in seven tries. Notre Dame was fired up for this game and Maryland seemed to still be basking in the glow of their win at Illinois. It will be different for this group now that they have attracted so much attention and some rather lofty rankings by sports writers. Maryland found itself on every "power" poll that is published on the internet and for middle of the road squads like Notre Dame it can make their season to beat the Terrapins. Being able to handle that pressure will be another step in the maturation of this group.

It is true that Maryland has a collection of seniors but the majority of them are only second year starters. The 2002 class acted as a logjam that stagnated the entire program but especially the 2003 class that followed them. In a perfect world this group would have matured as bench players and have been fully formed coming into this season but it is clear after the Notre Dame game that they still have to hone certain aspects of their game. From Mike Jones being a total non-factor, Ekene Ibekwe's stupid technical foul for taunting, to DJ Strawberry waiting till it was too late to take over the game it wasn't a great game for the seniors. The freshman didn't look as mature as they had the first eight games with both Eric Hayes and Greivis Vasquez both struggling and looking like kids with two months experience on a college campus.

Sometimes when a team is on a hot streak layoff like the one Maryland had after the Tuesday game in Champaign can result in the kind of lackadaisical and uninspired performance that we saw the other night. Nortre Dame clearly wanted to play a very physical game and from the tip they hand checked and bodied all the Maryland players. As it became clear the officials were not in the mood to whistle much of anything the Fighting Irish turned more towards the goon style of defense. I became very concerned that a Terps player would leave the game with a bad injury as the officials let the game spiral out of control. DJ Strawberry and James Gist both were sent crashing to the floor at different points but were thankfully not badly injured. It reminded me of the play in last season's BB&T that saw blood on the floor when George Washington beat Maryland. It was clear that the middling coach of the Irish, Mike Brey, who seems to think that the 1990's jacket and mock turtle neck look is still fashionable, studied the Michigan State game tape and decided to try to be very physical with Maryland. Given that his team has the collective athleticism of Gene Hackman's team in Hoosiers it was his best choice. At one point in the first half his big men were scared to even go into the lane against the jack rabbits wearing Maryland jerseys. After two Notre Dame goons nearly decapitated James Gist as he went up for a dunk in the 2nd half they seemed to gain a little courage.

As ridiculous as the officiating was it wasn't what lost the game for Maryland. A string of 11 field goals in a row for Notre Dame was what turned the tide against the Terps. With a comfortable eight point lead with 14 minutes left in the second half Maryland seemed ready to blow Notre Dame out of the gym then Ekene Ibekwe showed some of his immaturity and taunted a Nortre Dame player after a block. He was quickly called for a technical foul that helped to spark the run by the Irish. Notre Dame spread the floor out after that and beat Maryland with cuts to the basket but it wasn't until after they had started to make a run and Maryland's defense unravled.

James Gist and Ekene Ibekwe had their softness and lack of interior play laid bare for all to see. Neither has the kind of nasty streak you need in a great interior player. They are most effective when Maryland's wing players can drive to the basket and draw defenders giving Gist and Ibekwe the space they need to be effective. In this game Maryland's guards were unable to do that with any effectiveness. It is worth noting that Bambale Osby grabbed 8 rebounds in sixteen minutes which is three more than Ibekwe got in 25 minutes. Gist matched Osby's total but took 32 minutes to do it.

Eric Hayes had the worst night of his young career. The initial pressure by Notre Dame got him out of sorts and he didn't seem the same the rest of the night. For the first time this season he had more turnovers (4) than assists (2). He also struggled badly to defend the dribble penetrations by Kyle McAlarney, who had only scored in double digits once all season.

His fellow freshman teammate Greivis Vasquez didn't have a great night either and shot a terrible 4-15 from the floor. At times Vasquez took some bad shots and rushed possessions giving the opponent more opportunity to increase their lead. This should throw some cold water on fools like Greg Doyle who think Gary Williams is crazy to start Eric Hayes at point.

It is a shame that DJ Strawberry waited until Maryland was down 8 points with just over a minute to start asserting himself. Strawberry scored 9 points in about 40 seconds and clearly showed that Notre Dame didn't have a single player who could match him one-on-one. Makes you wonder what would have happened had Strawberry snapped out of his funk sooner. I'm not blaming DJ since he showed some real heart at the end of the game and nearly had his season ended with another knee injury later in the game. He is as tough and gutsy a player as Maryland has had since Juan Dixon but he needs to realize that he has to bear the burden of being "The Man" for this group. Once he embraces that Maryland will be better off. His post game comments seem to indicate he realizes that he must take leadership of this group.

So far this season there have been a number of surprising losses for ranked teams: Arizona losing to Virginia, Kansas losing to Oral Roberts, Georgetown losing to ODU, this is the state of college basketball. There is a dilution of talent and parity reigns so you'd better be ready to play every night. Maryland learned this lesson against a Notre Dame team they should have handled easily. The same day Georgia Tech learned that lesson when they lost to a terrible Miami squad. That may well come back to haunt the Yellow Jackets. For Maryland this game may be just a learning experience.

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