COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- So Terps fans won't get their coveted bout against an undefeated Syracuse team Feb. 24 at the Comcast Center. Boston College ruined that juicy possibility when the Eagles knocked off the Orange, 62-59, in overtime at the Carrier Dome early last week. And no, Terps (15-12, 7-7 ACC) aficionados won't get to see the home team take their shot at a No. 1 ranked squad. Duke effectively put the kibosh on that opportunity Feb. 22, when the Blue Devils handed Syracuse (25-2, 12-2) its second straight loss, 66-60, at Cameron Indoor.
"I wanted to play them undefeated. It just brings more buzz, more noise around the game," said Maryland junior wing Nick Faust, who is coming off a career-high 20-point effort in a 71-60 victory against Wake Forest. "But [Syracuse is] still a great team, has great players, and it's still going to be a great game."
Despite SU not holding up its end of the bargain, it's still a much-hyped match coming up at 7 p.m.. The Comcast Center will be sold out, and without rivals Duke or North Carolina visiting College Park this year, the Cuse-UMD meeting will serve as a viable stand-in for "game of the year" in Maryland.
"It would be nice to have a big crowd, our kids deserve it. We've gotten healthy, we're playing well," Terps head coach Mark Turgeon said. "We have a great opportunity … against a team second in the league, is 20-something and two, and has great players. Hopefully there will be a lot of energy in the building. It will be a heck of a challenge for us, obviously, [but] we need a night with a lot of energy, we need a fun night."
It doesn't figure to be much fun for Maryland's offense going against that vaunted Syracuse 2-3 zone. Head coach Jim Boeheim's signature defense is once again stifling as the Orange have held ACC foes to a league-low 56 points per game. In fact, Cuse has only allowed three conference opponents to hit the 60-point threshold in 14 games.
Syracuse isn't a great defensive rebounding team (10th in the ACC), but they are first in steals at 8.30 per game and fourth in blocks, averaging 4.96 a night. Freshman point guard Tyler Ennis and sophomore guard Trevor Cooney rank No. 1 and No. 2 in the ACC in steals at 2.11 per and 2.0 per, respectively, while junior forward Rakeem Christmas is fourth in blocks at 1.85 per game. Sophomore forward Jerami Grant isn't a block machine like Christmas, but he alters plenty of shots and leads the team in rebounding (7.2 per game).
"That 2-3, they're just so long and athletic, and they can make up for plays others can't with their length," Faust said.
"It's going to make it tough to finish with their bigs and their length," added sophomore wing Jake Layman, who has played effective defense himself as of late, recording six steals the last three games. "But we've still got to penetrate the zone, get inside and make shots."
Of course, Faust, Layman and Co. have seen plenty of zone this year. With the Terps struggling at times knocking down outside shots, opponents have taken to falling back into a 2-3, daring UMD to jack up an open 3. But Turgeon isn't sure that experience will necessarily help against Syracuse.
"We've seen a lot of zone, but we haven't seen this zone," the coach said. "Their zone is terrific. You can't simulate it, practice against it -- you have to get used to it. You know it's coming, but you can't simulate their size. It's a challenge for us.
"But like any zone, there's holes in it you have to find, and when you get a chance you have to make shots. Everybody tries to attack it the same way, but you have to have three or four ways to go against their zone, because they're going to adjust."
Based on numbers, Syracuse's offense isn't nearly as intimidating as its defense, but the stats are a bit misleading. Yes, the Orange are ninth in the ACC in scoring (69.2 points per game) and field-goal percentage (44.6 percent), and seventh in 3-point (34.8) and free-throw percentage (70.5), but a lot of that has to do with how opponents play them. Teams tend towards a methodical approach, using most of the shot clock in order to find an open shot against the zone. Thus, there are less possessions, and less opportunities for the Orange to score.
But that hasn't kept four Orange players from averaging in double figures. Senior forward C.J. Fair is seventh in the ACC, averaging 16.4 points a night, while Cooney drops in 13.0, Grant 12.6 and Ennis 11.7.
Many of those buckets come via the putback, which makes sense considering Syracuse is the conference's No. 1 offensive rebounding team.
"We've been doing a lot of box-out drills, just working on rebounding," Layman said. "We know that's a huge factor, and for our guards to get a lot of rebounds."
But while the Orange's big men clean the offensive glass, it's Ennis that makes the Cuse tick, regardless of how much he's scoring. Along with his defensive prowess, the likely Freshman of the Year is first in the conference with 5.7 assists per game, showing impeccable court vision and poise. Moreover, he rarely turns the ball over, the main reason the Orange are averaging just nine hiccups per game, by far the least in the ACC.
Add in Cooney, a deadeye 3-point marksman (41.4 percent), and the Orange have one of, if not the best, backcourts in the nation.
"Cooney is a great player, he can really shoot it. Even if you get a hand in his face [he can shoot it]. You just have to try to contest it," said Faust, who will be tasked with guarding him. "And Ennis is a really smart player, has a great feel for the game and his IQ is really high. It's those two that really make it work for them."
Turgeon concurred with Faust, lauding Ennis and the rest of the squad as well.
"[Ennis] has been tremendous. He plays an unbelievable amount of minutes, and for his body to withstand that is amazing," Turgeon said. "And he just stays calm, makes big shots, makes big plays, doesn't turn it over a lot. He's a good player, [but] they have a lot of good players. Cooney has had a heck of a year, C.J. Fair is tremendous, Grant has been tremendous, Christmas is great. They have a lot of great players and an excellent coach."
The good news for the Terps is the Orange have hit the skids as of late. In its upset in the Carrier Dome, Boston College shot a respectable 42.3 percent from the floor, while the Orange couldn't hit a crater-sized hoop (32.3 percent shooting). One game later, Duke ripped through that 2-3 zone and shot 47.9 percent, while SU once again failed to reach 40 percent from the floor (38.7).
"I think what you've seen in the other games, [Syracuse] lost in overtime and the last 10 seconds [against Duke]. It's not like they've gotten blown out; they're a heck of a team," Turgeon said. "I think they're a little more determined, a little more relaxed. There's a lot of pressure when you're undefeated…"
Now, the pressure is off -- and it's a safe bet Syracuse will be fired up considering how the Duke game ended. With the two teams in a dogfight down the stretch, the Blue Devils benefitted from a charging call on what looked to be an obvious block. Orange head coach Jim Boeheim went ballistic and offered some rather harsh words for the officials in the postgame press conference.
"It was pretty crazy to see Jim Boeheim do that, but that just lets us know he's going to come in here with a lot of energy and they're going to be looking to get the win," Layman said. "[After two straight losses] it definitely makes [Syracuse] more dangerous. They're going to come in here hyped and ready to go. We've got to do the same thing."
One would think Maryland would be amped pitted against a top-10 squad. But the Terps also haven't played since last Monday when they beat Wake Forest, and Turgeon acknowledged there's a chance some rust may surface. He said with UMD playing well the last three games, despite losses to Virginia and Duke, it would have been nice to continue the momentum.
At the same time, the coach said Maryland is fresh physically, fresh mentally and had a great week of practice. The Terps, Turgeon noted, are well aware this Feb. 24 bout is a barometer for how much progress the squad has made.
"I'm sure we'll be pretty juiced up," Turgeon said. "I said after the Duke game we're not winning, but we've gotten a heck of a lot better. … But we'll see tomorrow night. [Syracuse] is one of the elite teams in the country, so we'll see where we stand."
Terps Must Solve SU's Zone
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