Sunday, February 24, 2008

Terps NCAA chances going south

Maryland had a chance to get back on track for an NCAA bid by going to Miami and beating a vulnerable Hurricane squad on the road. Problem is that Maryland had lost four of five games against Miami since the expansion debacle, which shows how far the Terrapin program has declined since the glory days of 2002. Miami has never made the NCAA tournament since joining the league but that hasn't stopped them from continuing to beat Maryland whenever they play. Last season Miami only won 5 games against ACC opponents, two of which were courtesy of the Terps. The struggles against an awful basketball programs like Virginia Tech and Miami, which can't even get six thousand people to show up to their games, are emblematic of the slide of Maryland basketball into mediocrity.

There are probably a host of reasons why that might be but the league itself is probably weaker than it has been in years. What you have in the ACC this season isn't impressive parity but weak mediocrity. There are probably only three ACC teams that truly deserve bids in the NCAA right now. For me the main reason why Maryland is probably facing the third NIT season in four years is recruiting. I love Gary Williams and I hope he continues to coach at Maryland into the next decade but there is no getting around the fact that major blunders on the recruiting trail have put Maryland where they are today.

It was obvious at times in yesterday's loss that in terms of depth and talent Maryland is painfully thin compared with yesteryear. When Greivis Vasquez and James Gist play poorly it is obvious how little talent the Terps have behind them. Bambale Osby is a great blue collar player and he has been more reliable than anyone could have hoped coming into this season. It isn't an indictment of him to say that he isn't the kind of player that can carry this team. Beyond him you have a collection of players who won't scare anyone and who would probably have a hard time finding starting jobs throughout the rest of the ACC. Consider that in the last three years Maryland has recruited just one special player, Vasquez. Many of the rest are a collection of players who are likely backup level players on better teams or perhaps should not have been awarded a scholarship at a place like Maryland. Some of the younger players could develop into solid starters a couple of years from now, or maybe not. The problem is that many of them seem unable to even fill the role of even a solid backup at this point. Is that what a program like Maryland should be reduced to, hoping that after two years of seasoning players should be able to contribute?

James Gist had his third poor performance in four games. He really didn't do anything well in this game: rebounding, shooting, defense, or passing it was all terrible. He limited himself to 21 minutes, only six in the second half, with a series of dumb fouls. He and Boom Osby were outplayed by Anthony King and Dwayne Collins, neither of which are on the short list for All-ACC honors. Gist has reverted to some of his old habits and has rarely been aggressive on offense or defense the last few losses. A clear sign if this change is that he took 10 free throws against FSU and has only taken 8 in the last two games. Gist gave an excuse about how teams are playing him differently since his 30 point game against NC State which is mostly nonsense. No other teams realized they had to key on Gist after his 22 point 13 rebound game against North Carolina on national television a month and a half ago? Ridiculous. What other teams seemed to have figured out is that if you play aggressive and physical defense against Gist he will revert to his timid and ineffective style of resorting to jump shots outside the lane. Besides just being, on average, better defensive teams than Gist faced earlier in the season Virginia Tech, Duke and Miami did not do anything special to neutralize the senior. Unless Gist turns around his game quickly Maryland will be heading for the NIT.

Vasquez also played poorly, which will be a common theme as no starters played up to expectations, and couldn't make the plays that Maryland needed to win the game. He shot a terrible 5/17, including 1/6 from 3-point range, but did lead the team in rebounds and assists. Jack McClinton didn't really do too much damage with Vasquez guarding him and finished with 12 points and only six field goal attempts. He still has trouble staying in control on offense and his sometime frantic play lead to 5 turnovers. With Gist in a slump and none of the other players contributing much it requires Vasquez to have exceptional performances. Unfortunately he wasn't quite up to it against Miami.

Bambale Osby had a decent first half on offense and scored 7 points on 3/4 shooting but then took only one shot the entire 2nd half even though he played 18 minutes. He struggled at times with Miami's physical front line and wasn't as effective on defense as he is normally. You would expect more than 3 rebounds in 36 minutes of play and Miami grabbed 9 offensive rebounds in the 2nd half that really hurt the Terps. Osby is a very reliable player and is likely to give Maryland somewhere around 12-14 points and 6-7 rebounds per game, night in and night out, but he can't carry this team.

Eric Hayes and Landon Milbourne both struggled in this game as well. Hayes did break a string of terrible shooting performances by going 5/8 from the floor and leading the team with 14 points. He balanced that with four turnovers and only two assists. Hayes is supposed to be the more steady and reliable player but the last few weeks he has been just as prone to turn the ball over and make awful decisions as Vasquez. His defense against James Dews (5/7, 13 points) was awful as Dews was able to almost dribble into the lane at will with nary a turnover. Dews had only scored in double figures once in the last four games until putting up 13 on Maryland. I don't know if his ankle is still bothering him but he doesn't seem to possess the agility necessary to defend or dribble into the lane against ACC caliber athletes. Milbourne chucked a season high 16 shots but unfortunately only made five which totaled 13 points. If Vasquez and Gist had scored near their averages that may have been a decent contribution but Milbourne's 11 missed shots, many of which seemed like good looks that he couldn't convert into points, killed the Terps in the 2nd half. The sophomore went 3/11 in the second half while the team shot a pitiful 29% from the floor.

Reserve Jerome Burney finally made an appearance in his first ACC game of the season. He played 12 minutes and recorded 4 points and 5 rebounds, both decent numbers. He was the only reserve to score a point. Gary Williams had commented that Burney was playing better in practice the last few weeks and I felt he may get a shot to play against the team he had originally committed to as a high school recruit. Instead of being pleased that he got a chance I was annoyed that Williams has given 69 minutes to Dave Neal since the first Duke game while Burney languished on the bench. I don't want to abuse Neal but there is no comparison in the physical talents of Neal and Burney. Burney could become a valuable reserve that can give you quality minutes in league play, something Dave Neal will never be able to do. In those 69 minutes Neal produced 14 points and 7 rebounds which adjusted to a per/40 minutes basis is 8.1 points and 4.1 rebounds. Based only on one game Burney's per/40 minute stats are 13.3 points and 16.6 rebounds. Some might think this is unfair but Miami's frontline is probably a tougher test than most of the frontlines that Neal was facing earlier. It isn't Neal's fault that he lacks the talent to be a serious bench player, it is Gary Williams' fault for putting him out there to prove some sort of point about practice habits. I don't know what the real reason behind Burney's MIA period, and I doubt we will ever know, but I hope it was a damn good one because it may have cost Maryland an NCAA bid.

Two things are clear: Williams' has little faith in his bench players while at the same time he has botched his handling of the freshmen reserves. He chose to play Hayes and Vasquez for all but 3 minutes of the game and the only reason Burney played was because James Gist was in foul trouble. It only took Burney 12 minutes to have more rebounds than either Gist or Osby. The reserves didn't stink up South Beach by shooting a pathetic 37%, the bench went 2/5 from the floor, it was the starters that bricked their way to 21/57 shooting. The freshmen are not a panacea to the deficiencies of this group but Williams isn't really putting them in any position to help. Williams admitted that Tucker was healthy enough to play against Virginia Tech but that he had only practiced briefly before the game so he chose to play Jason McAlpin instead. I'm not sure that will ever make any sense to me but I suppose I'm just another Internet yahoo who cannot understand how playing McAlpin gives you a better chance to win.

Although the team played a poor game they were still within three points, at 61-58, with just under six minutes left in the game. The Terps then proceeded to shoot 2/8 from the floor, including a meaningless layup by Hayes with 22 second left, and turned the ball over twice. Miami on the other hand scored on six of their last seven possessions as Maryland ran out of gas and played turnstile defense. The atrocious defensive rating below bears that out, sorry it is worse than atrocious, so much worse I don't even know how to describe it. Maryland had been on a hot shooting streak going into this game and they had shot over 50% in six of their last eight games. This was the first ACC game that their opponent had out shot Maryland from the floor.

I'd say right now Maryland is a long shot to make the NCAA tournament. Their only real advantage is that Virginia Tech and Wake Forest have to win all their remaining games to have a serious chance at a bid and Miami's last three games are probably slightly more difficult than Maryland's. I think the Hokies and Deacons will probably play their way out of the NCAAs over the next three games but that may do little good given that Maryland lost twice to Virginia Tech and has to travel to Wake Forest this week. The Deacons are a much better team than the one Maryland beat in January and are 14-1 at home this year.

Offense: 98.0
Defense: 126.7


Alex said...

I'll agree that we get no production from the bench, but it's hard for me to place the blame for this on Gary's recruiting more so than his stubborn coaching. Dupree is a first-year underachiever, which has gone great lengths to reducing our front court depth. This seems to be the fault of Dupree and no one else. Furthering the lack of front court depth is Gary's refusal all season to develop Burney and Walker. Dave Neal played well on defense against Tyler Hansbrough, though that's really the only thing he's done well all season. Otherwise, he's a liability on defense and a nonfactor on offense. Burney is at least as talented as Osby, and Walker has potential, but Gary continues to use the hard working but inherently flawed Neal.

In the backcourt, half the problems are mental. Vasquez's bad habits speak for themselves. It'd be interesting to see how many points opposing teams get off of Vasquez's turnovers and subtract that sum from his points totals. I bet he wouldn't be the leading scorer. Hayes shows flashes of defensive ability, such as the fact that he's second on the team in steals. But his recent slump on both ends seems to be due to fatigue and general apathy. Milbourne is pretty good in general, he just needs to show up all the time.

Tucker is a great 6th man, and I don't really think anything bad can be said about him as a recruit or a player. Bowie probably wasn't a great recruit, but he hasn't had enough playing time to be able to score against ACC teams.

Gary should be given credit for his recruiting, but not for his handling of the freshmen. His questionable views on how practice effort translates into the ability to win games seems to be a bit irrelevant for this team. If you want to look for the reason behind this team's mediocrity, I'd look no further than Gary's offcourt team management. In my opinion, recruitment is fine.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your assessment of the team and Gary. I love Gary and he should stay at Maryland as long as he wants given what he has done for the program. However, his recruiting of late has been terrible. If it wasn't for Shane Mosley I would have no hope for them next year.

Esquire said...

I think you can appreciate all the great things that Gary Williams has done at Maryland and still be able to point out when he has made mistakes. There are a fair number of Maryland "fans" for whom nothing Williams ever does will be good enough and if you've followed my blog you'd know I'm not in that camp. I think that if you got Gary in a moment of unusual candor he'd admit that the efforts since the national title have not been up to his high standards. Does anyone think that a competitor like Gary enjoys going to the NIT every other year?

He has really turned the recruiting around recently and the players that they are bringing in are another level better than what was coming in from 2005-7. Williams seems to have assistants who are harder working and whom he trusts more than in recent years.

I don't mean to run down the players on the current roster. Some like Tucker, Bowie and Milbourne have shown promise and may develop into solid players. Dupree has certainly been a huge flop this season. The comments from his high school coach in the Baltimore Sun about his lack of motivation and dedication should have given every Maryland fan the willies. Shane Walker could be a solid player but was recruited as a project. You would have to expect he will likely be a backup for most of his career, if he ever starts. I like Dino Gregory but what position does he play in the ACC?

My larger point is that Gary sometimes gets caught up in his belief that tenacity and effort can make up for lack of talent. His play of Dave Neal is exhibit A of that theory. The problem is that doesn't work as a consistent philosophy in the ACC. It may help you steal a game here or there but in the long run the more talented teams will beat you and you'll lose to inferior opponents more often. The 2002 team may have been hard workers but they also had supreme talent.

Some players will never be great no matter how hard they hustle or work in practice. You won't compete for ACC titles or be among the elite in college basketball recruiting the likes of Neal, Gregory, Walker, Hayes, Burney, Bowie or Dupree. I'm not trying to denigrate those players and having a few on your squad isn't a bad thing but they are what they are.

Sean Mosley, Gus Gilchrist and Jin Soo Kim are all considered at this point to be top 60 type talent so that is a good start. Bobby Maze and Ken Bowman are high level Juco players who can fill the voids if some of the younger players are not ready for prime time next season. I don't think Gary would have run out and signed Maze or Bowman if he didn't recognize there are serious problems on the roster going into next season.

I do think Gary hasn't done his finest job getting some production from his bench this year but no amount of coaching finesse is going to turn anyone on the bench into a great contributor. It is impressive that he turned this season around and has probably gotten to the point where a losing record in the ACC is very unlikely. Who would have imagined that just two months ago? He hasn't forgotten how to coach. He is still one of the top two bench coaches in the ACC, but the formula that has worked during the winning streak seems to have lost its effectiveness.