Terps & Xavier: Chris Knoche Preview
The Sunday Selection show for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament has for the past years offered very little drama for the Maryland Terrapins and their fans. In 2015 and 2016 the team’s opponent and location were announced before the first commercial break. Yesterday there was no such break given to the Terps. The corporate monolith that is CBS/Coke/Capital One waited until the last possible pairing to announce that Maryland will play Xavier in Orlando on Thursday night.
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By the time that pairing was shown we all knew that it would be a 6 seed playing an 11 seed. The only thing we didn’t know was if we would be the 6 or 11. Seriously. The field was that close. It’s probably a statement about the sport that the game between the two seeds is seen as a pick ‘em in Vegas. But it’s also a statement about the way teams are evaluated in the smoke filled rooms by the selection committee. While the Terps may have wobbled down the stretch, they were clearly given high marks for their road wins as well as their wins against two Big 12 teams that made it into the dance- Kansas State and Oklahoma State. It also appeared to give a pretty clear FU (at least for now) to metrics like KenPom and more of a nod to the RPI as a better indicator of a team’s relative strength.
And so it’s on to Orlando and a date with the Musketeers. Xavier finished the season at 21-13 and were a .500 (9-9) in a strong Big East this year. The year was marred by a huge loss to the team in late January when 6’6” guard Edmond Sumner was lost for the season. At that point the team was 15-6 and had won six straight games including wins against eventual tournament teams Wake Forest and Providence. Sumner was the team’s second leading scorer at 15 points per game and the leading assist man with 5 per game. Local college hoops fans might remember him from his superlative 28 point/8 rebound/6 assist night against Georgetown in December….back when local hoops fans were still paying attention to Georgetown.
With Sumner out of the equation Xavier depends heavily on two experienced junior guards in Trevon Bleuitt and J.P. Macura. Bleuitt has received a lot of attention from NBA scouts with his 18 point, 6 rebound averages in the stout Big East. He dropped 40 points on crosstown rival Cincinnati in a game earlier this year and hit 9-11 from three to do it. He’s had to do a lot of heavy lifting this year and his workload increased when Sumner got hurt. With his team’s NCAA tournament hopes on life support in the Big East tournament, all he did was play all 40 minutes in a must-win game against a good Butler team and get 23-4-4. He’s a problem.
At 6’6’ 203, Macura has the same quality size as fellow wing Bleuitt. Almost half of Macura’s field goal attempts come from three where he shoots 34%. That percentage is down a tick from last season but he’s a much more complete player than he was last year and is a credible rebounder and a willing passer. He scores 14.5 per game and neither he nor Bleuitt ever goes to the bench much.
A lot of good programs like Xavier’s come with trademarks attached. This is a program that has achieved consistent success through the years and it usually comes from a team that has an edge to it. The Musketeers are usually an aggressive; defense first group makes you earn buckets and wins. The University has had a series of great coaches through the years- Pete Gillen, Skip Prosser, Thad Matta, Sean Miller and now, Chris Mack. Together they have all created a culture of success through effort and the program has only missed the NCAA tourney twice since 2000. Mack and this year’s edition of X are no different from those that came before him. In October Joe Lunardi picked Xavier as a final four team. They didn’t sneak up on anybody this year and were well on their way to a higher seed when Sumner went down. They wobbled to the point that they had to make some noise in the Big East tournament to make the dance and they did just that by winning two games including the statement win against Butler.
On paper the Terps got a bit of a break with this matchup simply because it could have been much worse. The rebounding issues that have hurt them for much of the year might be mitigated against a Xavier team that likes to play some of the same small ball Maryland does. While there is no one thing from a skill standpoint that stands out about Xavier the one thing they do is play unfailingly hard. Simply to be in the game with them you have to match the effort and edge they play with. That’s just the start. Here’s more…
Maryland will see a multiple defense approach from an active Xavier defense. Mack has effectively used zones like a 1-3-1 on occasion to vary up Xavier’s look. Terp point guards must identify that and exploit it. Those same point guards have to play with a hell of a lot more poise than exhibited this past weekend against Northwestern. Maryland’s interior players were a no-show in that same game and could have been sued for lack of support. That has to get better as well. The same can be said for the play of Maryland’s bench. Earlier this season the bench outscored Ohio State’s 33-0 in win at Xfinity. That won’t happen every night, to be sure, but the contributions against Northwestern were non-existent.
Its bad karma and a complete affront to the Basketball Gods to even talk about the possibility of a second round matchup against an old foe. So I won’t. This is a Maryland team that was picked tenth preseason in the Big Ten. Nothing was given to them and it sure won’t be this weekend. They ascended to a second place conference finish and a six seed in a terrific season through chemistry and late game heroics. Just as important, they were lights-out on the road. They will need to be again to advance.