Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Terps fade in loss

I have girded myself for many news stories about a "feisty" or "scrappy" performance in a losing effort for the basketball team. It would be easy to trot out those cliches after the Terps loss to a mediocre Illinois squad last night. Certainly the effort was good for most of the game which you would expect for a primetime game on ESPN (one of only three Maryland games on the prime ESPN channel currently scheduled this season). It had been four days since their last game and the tempo was a fairly pedestrian 61.0 so fatigue should not have been much of an excuse like it may have been in the Iona debacle. Maryland's free throw percentage was actually better in the 2nd half (70%) then it was in the 1st half (53.3%) which would not support the fatigue excuse either. Still there is something off with this team and their 2nd half play. In only notching 27 points the Terps have now scored less than 30 points in the second half of three out of six games. Not surprising that accounts for all three of their losses this year. Managing the stamina of the roster will be a challenge all season for Mark Turgeon but it didn't play much of a role in this loss. To the contrary Turgeon's substitutions may have contributed to Illinois pulling away for the win. With about 17 minutes left in the game Turgeon put Sean Mosley (who had an awful game) and Terrell Stoglin on the bench and put out a squad of Nick Faust, Mychal Parker, Ashton Pankey and two walk-ons. Not surprisingly by the time he put Mosley and Stoglin back in three minutes later Illinois had gained a lead they would not relinquish. I'm not sure what his thought process was with that lineup but it was a blunder by Turgeon that contributed to Maryland losing the game. Turgeon has had some pointed and public criticisms of his players the last few weeks and given his instinct for brutal truth he also deserves the spotlight to be put on some of his failures as well. Given that he is from the Roy Williams coaching school I doubt we'll see much of that from him. I thought his decision not to test the Illinois backcourt with some press late in the game was a mistake as well. They only did it once and it forced the Illini into an immediate timeout. Inexplicably Turgeon never tried it again until the game was already over. With his system you had better be damn good in the half court because they won't cause turnovers and therefore won't get any easy points as a result.

There has been some debate about Terrell Stoglin being a "ball hog" or something to that effect. He did take an amazing 42.5% of the shots when he was in the game, Faust being second with 28.3%, but he was very efficient at 114.0 points per 100 possessions. Given that heavy usage his turnover % was an excellent 15.7 and his effective field goal percentage of 58.8% was very good as well. About the only thing he did poorly was shoot free throws. It is obvious he isn't much of a defensive player so I won't fault him for not getting back on defense like Turgeon did in his beginning to be habitual post game player flogging.

Stoglin has to get more help from his backcourt teammates. Mosley had an awful game scoring only five points and turning the ball over at a 40% rate on his possessions. Turgeon is loath to criticize Mosley, as was Gary Williams, because he is a good kid and a hard worker. This game demonstrated that with Mosley you get great hustle plays mixed in with boneheaded plays that no senior should make. The hope that he will be a scoring factor for Maryland went out the window last season. He doesn't have the skills or mental makeup to be a scorer at the collegiate level. What should be expected is not to foul a three point shooter in the act, not commit dumb offensive fouls or turn the ball over at critical moments late in the game. Mosley did all three. Nick Faust struggled even worse than Mosley but he is a freshman who is playing out of position. It is painfully obvious that Faust has no ability to be a serviceable point guard. Until Pe'Shon Howard returns from injury Maryland will have to muddle through with what they have and Faust will have to try to take better shots and start making some free throws. His shooting percentages are all shockingly bad no matter from where on the floor. He is often too careless with possessions and has done little to get the ball to places on the court that will open up the offense.

James Padgett had a career night scoring with 16 points but his rebounding and defense need to improve, how he failed to grab one defensive rebound in 28 minutes is beyond me. Ashton Pankey also had a dreadful night rebounding. He let Illinois get TWO offensive rebounds off a missed free throw and failed to secure an easy rebound off a miss by Illinois with just 53 seconds remaining clinging to a 5 point lead. It is little wonder he is in Turgeon's dog house. He can be an excellent rebounder when his head is in the game but too often he pouts and has mental lapses.

The game against Notre Dame this weekend in the BB&T will be a directional game for the Terps. It is a game they have an excellent chance of winning given the Irish's poor play this season and loss of preseason All-Big East forward Tim Abromaitis. For scoring Notre Dame relies heavily on three point shooting and getting to the foul line. Defensively they are soft so and lack a significant inside presence so Maryland should be able to score. It will be a good test to see if this group can post a respectable ACC season or if they are going to struggle. If Maryland cannot beat Notre Dame on a neutral court I think they will struggle with middle of the pack ACC squads like Virginia Tech, Clemson, Miami and N.C. State.

Monday, November 14, 2011

More of the same for Edsall, Turgeon wins in debut

The game against Notre Dame was a prime opportunity for the football team to get a quality win and try to end the season on a positive note. Instead the effort and execution was dreadful in a 45-21 drubbing that wasn't even that close. Starting QB Danny O'Brien was largely ineffective before breaking his arm on a scramble in the 2nd half. He is done for the year and may have played his last game at Maryland. Notre Dame was brutally efficient on offense and had their way with the Terp's defense to the tune of 508 yards and 5 touchdowns, the Irish defense scored the other touchdown. From the 2nd quarter Notre Dame scored touchdowns on four straight possessions and put Maryland out of its misery. This wasn't a great Notre Dame team, having beaten only one opponent with a winning record all season to this point, but they were not going to beat themselves. On the other hand this Terp squad is in the process of mailing in the rest of the season. There was fight in this group up until the Florida State game and since then they have not been competitive in the last four outings. In the last four losses they have been outscored 145-67 and it is even worse if you throw out some garbage time touchdowns against Boston College and FSU.

While the offense rarely threatens to string together a number of first downs, let alone scores, the defense has been even worse. Against Notre Dame the tackling was the worst I've seen all season. The run by Jonas Gray that set up a 1 yard touchdown was a horrendous exhibition of missed tackles. Not only was the tackling bad but defenders also took bad angles on pursuit and at times exhibited poor effort when away from the ball carrier. The defensive line did get some pressure on Irish QB Tommy Rees and CB Trenton Hughes had a good game (relative to his teammates, anyway) coming back into the starting lineup.

D.J. Adams returned to the running back rotation but had little effect with 55 yards on 16 carries for a 3.4 yards per carry average. Davin Meggett was also largely ineffective with just 37 yards on 9 carries. Without C.J. Brown's gains in the 2nd half the running game as a whole was largely impotent. The receiver corps has been a weak group all season and that continued in this game. None of the wideouts are consistent or possess significant big play ability. None of the QBs have done much to help them this season and as I indicated earlier Danny O'Brien continued his poor play with a 14/21 and 132 yards and a slew of poor reads and bad throws including another interception returned for a touchdown. Brown produced some yards in garbage time that probably don't mean much as the Irish were playing soft defense with a huge lead.

This team has failed to show much consistency on either side of the ball and it is hard to imagine that they will win either road game at Wake Forest or N.C. State to end the season. It is obvious this is a bad team from players to staff.

Turgeon gets first win
Maryland let UNC-Wilmington hang around most of the game until putting them away with free throws in the closing moments. Relying mostly on solid defense, free throws and rebounding it wasn't a visually pleasing contest. The offense was very uneven, particularly in the 1st half, and it is clear the team will continue to struggle with a lack of ball handlers on the roster. Terrell Stoglin didn't start due to a run in with coach Mark Turgeon of an undisclosed nature. Truth is Stoglin was the only guard who showed much of an ability to score. Sean Mosley showed more of the same we have seen from him over his first three seasons: great effort and hustle and an inability to shoot the basketball with any efficiency. It is too early to judge Nick Faust and Mychal Parker and both have a chance to improve, greatly in Faust's case, over the course of the season, but both will need to produce more than 3/8 shooting in 54 combined minutes like they did the other night. Without the surprising production of Ashton Pankey and James Padgett who combined for 25 points and 15 rebounds it may have been a different result. I think Pankey and Padgett will be much better than fans thought as a duo. They are both content to do the dirty work on the inside and seem more than capable of replacing Dino Gregory's production (vastly overrated by fans) from last season. Berend Weijs needs to do a much better job of keeping out of foul trouble and if he can't stay on the floor Padgett and Pankey will be worn out in the 2nd half of games. It is interesting to note that I think the frontcourt, which was supposed to be a weak area, as a group outplayed the backcourt. We'll know more in the coming games against in Puerto Rico when they have to go against bigger and better forwards. 

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Shame and Scandal

It has been a rough time recently for Maryland supporters. Gary Williams shocking retirement, the bitter divorce from Ralph Friedgen, the failed courtships of Mike Leach and Sean Miller, the hiring of Randy Edsall, the dismal performance of the football team and the prospect of a long slog of a basketball season must have most fans more than a little weary. I know personally it has been a struggle to be as invested in Maryland sports recently as I have in the past. There is much to talk about with the struggles of Randy Edsall and his constant PR gaffes, the recruiting class signed by Mark Turgeon today and the specter of looming cuts to athletic programs given the dire straights the athletic department finds itself in after Debbie Yow's mismanagement. All those should be analyzed and discussed because in many ways Maryland athletics are at a crossroads.

Yet after reading the media coverage and grand jury reports regarding the burgeoning scandal at Penn State I can only think there are far worse things than losing games.  Some in the media, in an attempt to make sense of as vile a scandal as there has ever been in American sports, have termed this Penn State's "Len Bias moment." At first glance it is an absurd analogy but also incredibly insulting to link Bias' name with that of a scandal that is at its heart the face of human cruelty. The death of Len Bias was a dreadful tragedy and one that in many ways still lingers to this day at the University of Maryland. The wound opened when Bias lost his life has taken many years to heal in the community and the scar of that loss will last for decades still. It may have indirectly exposed some things about the athletic department and Lefty Driesell's basketball program that were unseemly and the attempt by administrators to minimize the fallout from Bias' death only made the school look worse. Bias became a symbol of sorrow at a time when cocaine was beginning to create havoc across the nation. His death took its place as part of the national discourse over the proliferation of drugs but the pain was of a community that lost one of its most exceptional members in a heartrending and shocking manner.

What has transpired at Penn State, based on the available evidence, is something else entirely. I cannot think of another scandal in the history of American sports that involves this level of moral failure by an institution and the individuals charged with the ultimate responsibility of an organization. There may be a few murderers in the history of sports but they all acted as individuals. There are few, if any, acts that surpass the molestation of a child in depravity. The scandal at Baylor by former coach Dave Bliss is the only situation I can think of that even approaches the moral culpability of those people at Penn State that were informed of Jerry Sandusky's behavior. Bliss attempted to slander a player who was a victim of murder, perpetrated by the former teammate at Baylor, as a drug dealer in an attempt to divert attention from NCAA violations that were committed by Bliss. As despicable as that was Bliss had no role in the murder and did not participate by failing to report a crime to the police. There is no corollary for what happened in Happy Valley. It is unprecedented in college athletics. The "scandals" in college sports that Penn State was so proud to avoid, what often amounts to hustling for money on one side or the other, are trifling compared to the rape of numerous children.

Those in power at Penn State were aware over the course of years that there were serious issues regarding Sandusky and his relationship with minors. He held onto his job after the initial legal investigation in 1998 and was given emeritus status and unfettered access to the university facilities even after leaving the coaching staff. A few years later a member of the staff witnessed Sandusky sodomizing a boy in the showers at the gym on campus. Even though a crime was witnessed by an employee on university property the local law enforcement was never contacted. The culpability of the university and the most powerful individual on the campus, head coach Joe Paterno, is unavoidable. If a person you knew for decades and respected was accused of such a heinous crime would you not try to establish what had precisely occurred? Would a grown man in the shower with a 10 year old boy on a late Sunday evening not cause you concern even without the benefit of further nauseating details? Would you not ensure that someone who has the jurisdiction and authority over such a serious accusation was informed instead of a feckless school administrator? In a self serving statement that was equal parts hubris and senility Paterno claimed he wished he had done more but that Penn State's administrators should not focus on his status but on more important matters. What is sad is that Paterno actually believes that his status isn't a major factor in this scandal. What occurred at Penn State was an abdication by those in authority when confronted with something monstrous and evil. It is inescapable that Paterno is the face of that moral failure and a lame justification that he did all that was required under the law doesn't suffice in the face of the exploitation and rape of children.

How did things get to this point at Penn State? Unfortunately there is nothing exceptional about men like Jerry Sandusky. Pedophiles like him are in communities across this nation preying upon children to satisfy their sick predilections. How did Sandusky in particular get away with this for so long? I think the role of college football in this scandal cannot be overlooked. Penn State's football program brings significant revenue into the university but is also a significant gravitational pull for alumni and booster donations. Anyone who knows Penn State alumni knows that the football program plays a central role in the community there like few places in the country. Paterno's pontiff like role with the program has blurred the line between the individual and institution. If the most powerful man on campus received news that Sandusky had been seen molesting a child on campus and chose not to investigate the matter who would do so in his stead? The tsunami of college football money seems to have wiped away any sense of morality at Penn State and unfortunately it isn't just Happy Valley. The wayward beast of college football is what sends a college kid at Notre Dame up in a scissor lift during a gale to film a practice ending with him plummeting to his death. Not a single member of the football staff paid for that tragedy with their job. It results in 12 deaths at Texas A&M setting up the annual bonfire in the name of absurd tradition. The dismal tide of football now has university presidents jumping from conference to conference to chase a few extra pigskin dollars in a manner that would make Gordon Gekko proud. As Lou Mannheim said in Wall Street, "The main thing about money, Bud, is that it makes you do things you don't want to do."

The Frankenstein monster of college football was not responsible for what Jerry Sandusky did but it made it less likely that people at Penn State would do the right thing. If an unknown Penn State staff member had been caught molesting children on campus I would expect that the response of people like AD Joe Curley, Senior Vice President Gary Schultz and Paterno would have been different. The graduate assistant who witnessed the rape of a child in the football building would not have debated contacting the police if the perpetrator was not a notable former Penn State football assistant. This disgrace is a warning for other colleges that invest in the hegemony of the football program as an element of the institution. Now Penn State will be haunted by the stigma of these foul deeds along with all that football blood money. May those who were victimized by Sandusky, under the umbrella of Penn State football,  be successful in their civil lawsuits against these scoundrels.