Monday, March 22, 2010

Vasquez’s heroics not enough to beat Sparta

In many ways the season ending loss to Michigan State was a fitting end to this season and the Greivis Vasquez era in College Park. Vasquez’s heroics in the last few minutes were the stuff of legend but were not enough to make up for the limitations of the rest of his team that were exposed by a veteran Spartan squad. Though the ending was one of the most bitter in Maryland post season history it was a game that the Terrapins had no right to win. They trailed for all but a few minutes of the game and were thoroughly outplayed by Michigan State in almost all facets of the game. It was only when the Spartan’s ball handling went to hell with the loss of Chris Allen and then Kalin Lucas that Maryland was able to get some easy scoring opportunities to close the gap. Unlike the close wins over Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, in which Maryland earned the win in both cases, if they had won this game it would have been a theft.

The key to this defeat was Maryland’s shoddy half court and transition defense. Starting with the regular season finale at Virginia Maryland’s defense had a dramatic decline. 

As you can see above starting with the Clemson game on February 24 Maryland’s defense was on a steady decline from that point onward. Maryland did play more difficult opponents later in the season but that isn’t the major factor in Maryland’s defensive problems. I think many of the starters including the three seniors wore down as the season went on. Maryland was a good shooting team all season but their shooting percentage also dropped in a similar pattern to their field goal percentage defense. In the last four games of the season Maryland allowed opponents to shoot 51%, 56%, 42% and 55% and offensive efficiency ratings of 115.3, 100.0, 106.9 and 119.7 respectively. The perimeter defense also collapsed in the last four games as opponents shot 48.6% from beyond the arc. In the first eight games in ACC play they didn’t allow a single opponent to shoot better than 33% from 3-point range but in the last but in the last eight games of the season only a single opponent shot less than 35% from 3-point range. It was their defense that abandoned the Terps in the post season and if you can’t guard anyone you won’t last long in the NCAA Tournament.

Michigan State may have had some out-of-nowhere performances by Summers and Lucious who combined to hit 9 of the 10 threes that the Spartans made during the game but part of that was the horrendous defense that Maryland played. Though he has never been a great defender even by his standards Eric Hayes had one of the worst defensive performances of his career. Hayes had an excellent offensive game with 18 points on 6/12 shooting and 7 assists without a turnover but as good as he was on offense he was as terrible on defense. The senior only played about 20 seconds of the last two minutes and that was mostly because of he was a defensive liability. Hayes wasn’t alone with his poor defense as Milbourne, Gregory and Vasquez all struggled at times. The press that Gary Williams had Maryland using in the 1st half was totally ineffective but he stuck with it. It gave Michigan State many open looks and contributed greatly to them building their lead in the 1st half. If it wasn’t for two unforced turnovers the Spartans would have buried two more 3-point attempts off the breaking Maryland press. One player stepped out of bounds before hitting another three and one shuffled his feat before draining his shot. The press may have gotten to Michigan State late in the game but not until Kalin Lucas went out with his injury and the Spartans have built a large lead.

It was no secret that Michigan State was going to pound Maryland on the glass and they did exactly that. The Spartans held a +18 rebound margin for the game and grabbed 48% of the offensive rebounds available. They only grabbed 13 offensive rebounds because they were shooting 55% from the floor and didn’t miss many shots to begin with. Landon Milbourne and Dino Gregory are both poor rebounders and in this game that was evident again. Jordan Williams was alone out there at many points in the game and grabbed 10 rebounds in just 29 foul limited minutes. Gregory and Milbourne played 47 minutes and had five rebounds.

Michigan State turned the ball over almost as many times in the 1st half as in the 2nd but the steals Maryland got in the 2nd half were converted into points more often. With Maryland not getting defensive stops it prevented them from getting out in transition and scoring as easily. The offense came alive in the 2nd half and the Terps shot 47% from the floor and 45% from 3-point range but it wasn’t enough because the defense couldn’t get stops when they needed it.

It was a difficult loss because of the circumstances but forget that Michigan State was a 5 seed. They were ranked about 8 spots higher in both polls and went 14-4 in the Big Ten. They were the better team going into this game. Even with a couple of their main players injured they still hung on to beat Maryland. If the Terps had lost Vasquez like the Spartans lost Lucas they would have likely collapsed. Michigan State didn’t and actually extended the lead after all the players knew Lucas’ season was probably over. Gary Williams will need to get more out of his bench next season and several underclassmen will need step up and take scoring roles. Sean Mosley, Cliff Tucker and Adrian Bowie combined to score 8 fewer points than Summers did alone. Lucious, a bench player who had not scored in double figures since December, made the big shot when Michigan State needed it the most. The Terps bench couldn’t come through like that when they were needed for most of the season. In a game like this that was enough to make the difference.

It was sad to see the great career of Greivis Vasquez come to a close the way it did. If only he had some better players around him for his last few years who knows what he may have been able to do at Maryland. Put Vasquez on any of the top seeds left in the tournament and they immediately become the favorite to win a championship. A player as great as Vasquez can take a team comprised mostly of role players to the Tournament but he won’t be able to take them far. I don’t think Vasquez’s time was wasted at Maryland. He didn’t show up to Maryland as an elite player and has worked very hard to get to his current level. It is a shame that Gary Williams didn’t recruit a better supporting cast around him but without Vasquez Maryland would probably be on a streak of four straight NIT appearances and it isn’t obvious that Williams would be the coach of Maryland in 2011. Maybe that is an achievement that Vasquez can be as proud of as a Sweet Sixteen.

This season is a Rorschach test for Maryland fans. I think this team achieved about what you would expect. They played very poorly in the nonconference part of the schedule and got hot at the right time in the ACC schedule. Combined that with a weak ACC this season and that accounts for a 13-3 record that looks probably better than it is. Maryland was unlucky to get the best 5 seed in the tournament in their bracket. There was no reason to assume that getting past Michigan State would be easy or even likely. Gary Williams has earned a 4 or 5 seed five times in his years at Maryland. Out of those five times three have come since 2002. Number of Sweet Sixteen appearances he has in those five tournaments: one. Maryland still doesn’t have the depth of talent that you need to make a deep NCAA Tournament run. If there are upsets perhaps your path becomes easy but you won’t beat the kinds of top 25 teams Maryland has faced in the tournament the last four times (Michigan State, Memphis, Butler and Syracuse) and win with the level of talent Williams has recruited. Perhaps that is changing with the last two recruiting classes but the remains to be seen on the court.

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