COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Don’t look now, but not one, but two nationally-ranked teams will take the floor at Xfinity Center Dec. 3 at 9:15 p.m. in a nationally-televised college basketball game.
It’s part of the ACC/ACC Challenge – no, wait, scratch that – the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, those 21st-ranked Terrapins in their first time on the Big Ten side of the tote board.
“We’re very excited, very happy to be in the rankings and we’re not going to stop,” said Maryland point guard Melo Trimble, a big part of Maryland’s 7-0 record and sudden lofty perch. “We’re going to keep going and keep improving.”
Trimble will be the focal point of a voracious Virginia defense coming to town as the 7th-ranked team in the country and also boasting a 7-0 mark.
The Cavaliers lead the nation in scoring defense, yielding just 44.6 points per game, and are second in field goal percentage defense (29.3 percent). Virginia is coming off a frightening 45-26 (not a typo) win over Rutgers, that must have been so ugly women and children were asked to go home at the half (Rutgers led 18-17).
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said the statistic that impressed him most was the defensive shooting percentage the Cavaliers are compiling. “We’ve been pretty good (defending) and I think we’re at 35 percent,” he said.
The Cavaliers are big and athletic, and Turgeon expects the game to be “a grinder,” a physical battle, which might not favor the Terrapins, who could be without two top offensive players. Obviously scoring leader Dez Wells and all he brings to the team, which includes so much more than just scoring, won’t be available, missing his third game with that broken wrist suffered against Iowa State.
The other question mark is senior forward Evan Smotrycz, who just returned two games ago from his broken foot, and then “tweaked” the injury Nov. 30 in the 95-77 victory over VMI. “Evan is kind of day-to-day,” said Turgeon. “He’s still sore, he’s still sore from the surgery, and it’s going to be that way for a while. I’m preparing like he’s not playing.”
That said, Turgeon will give Smotrycz every chance to get back and play. It’s a game-time decision. The coach also said that 7-1 Michal Cekovsky, who left the VMI game with an ankle sprain, but returned, has “responded well” to treatment and is ready to go, barring any setbacks.
The Terrapins are likely to start their “big” lineup against the Cavaliers – Cekovsky or 6-11 Damonte Dodd alongside 6-8 Jon Graham. Count 6-9 Jake Layman, who finished the VMI game at center, a position he had never practiced, as a “big” too.
“I love a physical game,” said Graham, who has had to bide his time on the bench while Maryland has played smaller teams recently. “I’m ready for anything. My job is just to be ready to play. We just have to match their intensity and just do what we do, run our offense like we have all year.”
Graham said the newcomers this season have brought a great work ethic from the very first workouts, that has filtered throughout the team. It’s one thing for veterans to try to push the younger guys to work hard. It’s another thing when the new guys – four freshmen and senior transfer Richaud Pack – come in and set the bar higher.
“They came in with that hard-work mentality instilled in them and they blend in really well with the guys that are here,” said Graham, who knows a lot about work ethic. “And you see the results.”
Turgeon has slipped “I really like this team” comments into just about every meeting with the press and there’s obviously a better chemistry on the offensive end where the ball moves more crisply than in recent memory. On the defensive end, the newcomers have bought in, and most are performing at a higher level than even Turgeon expected.
Maryland had 10 blocked shots against VMI (3 apiece from Cekovsky and Dodd), and held the high-scoring Keyedets to 33.3 percent shooting in the second half. Now a much bigger challenge awaits against a Top Ten team loaded with talent, size and athleticism. Oh, yeah, and that defense.
“They just drill and drill and drill, and they’re really solid,” said Turgeon of the Virginia defense. “You have to make jump-shots, figure out a way to space them, and try to get to the foul line. If you’re not doing either one of those, it’s going to be a long night. And then they limit you to one shot. They’re just so sound, defensively. Everything is in front of them.
“They have great length and they have great size in (7-foot Mike) Tobey. (Darion) Atkins is playing well. (Anthony) Gill is a great athlete. They have great size across the board defensively and they take a lot of pride in it.”
And that’s not even mentioning their best player, 6-5 All-ACC guard Malcolm Brogdon, who can beat you a lot of different ways, shooting, passing, defending, just playing smart.
And so far this season, it’s local product Justin Anderson, who originally committed to the Terrapins, who is leading the Cavaliers with a 15.0 ppg scoring average. The 6-6 jumping-Justin had verbally committed to Gary Williams just before the coach’s retirement. Anderson, out of Montrose Christian, didn’t wait to see who would take over at Maryland, taking his talents further south.
Anderson has led the Cavaliers in scoring in six of the seven games, and he’s one of several matchups made more difficult without Wells in the mix for Maryland. “I think Richaud Pack is taking on that challenge of trying to guard (the other team’s top threat),” said Turgeon. “Jake Layman needs to step up and do that for us when he plays the wing position. Our guys continue to get better. Melo and Dion (Wiley) and Jared (Nickens) continue to get better defensively.”
Turgeon added at the end of that statement that the challenge defensively was “fun” for those three, which is another one of those little asides that tell you a lot about the improved chemistry this season. It’s more apparent the competitive nature of that freshman perimeter trio on the offensive end where they’ve been fearless in taking and making big shots.
They’re working hard at the other end, too, and that’s why this team is suddenly back in the national spotlight. “All the turmoil that went on after the season ended, we were picked 10th in the Big Ten, and just to be ranked is good because we’ve earned it,” added Turgeon. “No one was talking about us. We’ve done something to get to this point. We understand there’s a lot left. We want to be ranked in February. That means we’re really having a great year. It’s nice now because it’s been a long time.”
Unfortunately, the Terrapins are missing Wells and perhaps Smotrycz in their biggest game of the season to date. Looks like there might be a lot more big games this season than many forecast for Turgeon’s team.
Virginia and Maryland have been playing since 1912, and the all-time series is 107-74, Terps, though the Cavaliers had won six in a row before Maryland’s 75-69 overtime win in the school’s final ACC regular season game. Virginia had won three straight in College Park before that one, and is 6-6 all-time in the Comcast/Xfinity Center.
Layman sees this meeting of ranked teams as a statement game for the Terrapins, who think they’re where they belong – back in the national conversation as a top contender. “We want the country to know that we think that we should be ranked right now,” he said. “We’re happy to be ranked but we’re not satisfied. We’ve got the No. 7 team in the country coming in. It’s a good chance to show who we are.”
But minus perhaps two stalwarts, and still trying to figure things out without the ability to go to the Wells too often, this matchup with this particular defense is a particular problem.
“It’s a challenge for us with everything going on within our team,” said Turgeon. “It’s a huge challenge for us to figure out how to get some buckets. Hopefully, we’ll knock down some jump shots early and get them spaced. Otherwise you’re battling uphill all game.”
Turgeon said the team is still learning to play without Wells. Friday night, they were still learning how to break a huddle without the senior leader.
Layman said the potential absence of Smotcryz is also a bigger loss than most fans realize, that while he hasn’t been scorching the nets, his presence alone has opened up other players and lanes for driving. Layman admitted the Terrapins were still adjusting to having the “stretch four” back in the lineup so they actually can’t miss him too much when he’s gone.
Smotrycz hasn’t had many practices under his belt and the Terrapins, who needed a break “physically and mentally” didn’t practice Monday. That mean’s they had one workout – Dec. 2 – to get ready for the Cavs. Turgeon shrugged, saying he rest was vital, and that this time of year practices were more about the team than the opponent.
And perhaps this more offense-minded Terrapin squad is better suited to combat Virginia coach Tony Bennett’s pesky Pack-line defense. “I think with all our shooters that we have, if we’re able to get the ball inside and get them packed in, we’ll be able to get a lot of open shots,” said Layman.
Whatever scenario plays out, there’s more on Melo this game than ever, and that’s saying something. The poised freshman has already set the Maryland rookie scoring record (31 points against Arizona State), and was named Big Ten Co-Player and Freshman of the Week, after averaging 21.3 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game in three Maryland wins, including his MVP performance at the CBE Classic.
“He’ll be tested, they have length at their guard position,” said Turgeon. “He has been able to get to the basket some. It’s hard to get to the basket against Virginia. He’s a pretty good shooter, too, so it’s a tough matchup for them, too. Melo will figure it out. As the game goes on, we’ll see how they guard him. We know they show really hard on the ball-screens, and that’s fine if they make him give it up.
“We’ve got good players around him.”
The Virginia defense, and one of those big perimeter players, either the 6-6 Anderson, the 6-5 Brogdon or 6-2 point guard London Perrantes, will guard Trimble, who isn’t trembling at the prospect of playing the country’s best defensive team.
“We’re just going to run our offense,” said Trimble. “We’re not scared of anything. We’re just going to play our game.”
So far, so good, Melo.
Xfinity Marks the Spot: No.21 UMD Vs. No.7 UVA
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