After a brief hiatus the Maryland Terrapins mark their return to big-time college basketball with a nationally televised tilt against the reigning national champion Kentucky Wildcats on Friday night from the Barclay's Center in Brooklyn, New York. The game will be played on national television in a sold out NBA arena where 31 NBA scouts and executives have been credentialed for the game.
To some degree, the Terps are already winners by virtue of being in this game. It was not that long ago where games like this were commonplace for the Maryland program. But in an era of instant media and shortened memories, those games seem like ancient history. This game came about when Kentucky Head Coach John Calipari called Maryland Head Coach Mark Turgeon the day he took the job in College Park eighteen months ago and offered the opportunity. Calipari and Turgeon are long-time friends dating back to their days in Lawrence, Kansas in the early 1980's.
The Maryland coach was quick to seize the chance for his team to play in this spotlight game last year but he had to worry if his team- and his program- would be ready for a game like this against arguably college basketball's premier program.
As circumstances and good fortune have it, the Terps enter this game not only excited about the opportunity, they actually have more than a puncher's chance of competing with–and defeating–the Wildcats.
Since the day he took charge of the Maryland program, Turgeon has combined good fortune (inheriting center Alex Len from the previous staff's recruiting efforts) with hard work on the recruiting trail to completely retool the program he inherited. The hard work on the recruiting trail paid immediate dividends and the Terps will have six new players who will all be in Turgeon's ten-man rotation on Friday night.
In addition, if there is a good time to play a team as talented as Kentucky, early November may very well be that time. The exodus of NBA draft picks from Lexington after Kentucky's championship run last year has been well documented. Just as well documented is the profile of Calipari's incoming freshman class. If you need any primer on Kentucky talent and star power, just tune into ESPN's omnipresent “Kentucky All-Access” that seems to be on fourteen times a day.
In spite of the talent that left, nobody is going to feel sorry for Kentucky.
There is no way to predict how a young team will fare in the spotlight of a big early game like this and both the Terps and the Wildcats are exceptionally young and–for the most part–unproven.
Assuming both teams are ready to play and put forth the kind of efforts that both Turgeon and Calipari expect, this game could come down to a handful of different boxes that the Terps will have to check to come out of New York with a win.
In an early game like this between two uber-athletic teams, often time the game comes down to who scores the most easy points. If Maryland is able to limit easy Wildcat baskets in transition and keep the Kentucky size off of the backboards it will go a long way to insure a positive outcome. Considering all of the new talent on Kentucky's roster, a central part of the Maryland game plan almost certainly hinges on forcing the Wildcats to grind out baskets in their half court offense.
That said, the Terps have their own challenges in the same area and Calipari will look to limit Len around the basket and Terrapin wings Dez Wells and Nick Faust in the open court.
With both coaches looking to accomplish similar things, this game will probably not be aesthetically pleasing. Expect a game where shooting 40% from the field feels torrid.
With both teams grinding it out in the half court then things like foul trouble, turnovers and free throw shooting become paramount. Expect Turgeon to play ten men in the game and shorten his bench a bit down the stretch. Conversely, Kentucky will play up to eight players. But just because you use more players it doesn't mean you're deeper unless you're getting quality play from your bench.
Both teams enter the game with questions about their respective point guards. Maryland's Pe'Shon Howard will try and rebound from an injury riddled sophomore season and will be greatly aided by the presence of freshman Seth Allen. Howard is more pass oriented than Allen is right now but the presence of both offers Turgeon a luxury he simply did not have last season. Regardless of which one gets the bulk of the minutes, the Maryland point guards will have to handle the ball in the face of an impressive Kentucky defense.
Maryland fans last saw Kentucky point guard Ryan Harrow when he was wearing a North Carolina State jersey two years ago. After sitting out his transfer year last season, Harrow has inherited the point and will ask to provide his young team with experience, stability and direction. Even as talented as he is, that is an awful lot to ask a player after a year away from competition. He will have to deal with an equally impressive Maryland defense.
The Terps received a huge break leading into the game with the NCAA's decision to grant Maryland's appeal to grant Wells immediate eligibility. Not only is he clearly one of his team's best players he offers up big game experience where it is in short supply on both sides. He will also help his team that – in the early going at least- is in need of a regular scoring threat from the wing to compliment Faust and freshman Jake Layman.
The humble and self-effacing Turgeon would probably never admit to it but a fascinating subplot will be his matchup with Calipari. Turgeon is an interesting mix of old school and new school. He is part player's coach and part “my way or the highway.” The slicker than slick Calipari is just now getting credit for the coach that he is. Say what you want about the issues that have surrounded some of the programs he left he is both a savvy marketer and a completely underrated in-game coach. His team went 38-2 last season when they were everybody's biggest game.
When this game was announced a year ago most people looked at it like it was an Opportunity Game. Meaning that it was an opportunity to play a spotlight game in the Big Apple and have a place close enough for Terrapin Nation to gather and watch their team against the kind of program they aspire to be.
Now, because of events of the past 12 months, the “opportunity” has taken on a completely different meaning. Now it's an opportunity to beat the sport's standard bearer and announce your return to the highest level of college basketball.