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Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Essential Maryland Terrapins Preview

Here we are, folks - on the edge of another basketball season.

We all love the pigskin, we really do. But basketball is where it's at. There's no feeling like gathering together inside the Comcast Center, screaming your lungs out while watching the fast break across court end with a hellacious dunk. Admit it, Terp fans. When the Fridge gets a ring, maybe we'll think about switching religions.

So how is basketball stacking up this year? Prepare to find out tonight when the Terps take on Bucknell in the first matchup of the season. Meanwhile, let's take a look a little further into the season:

THE LOWDOWN: This year, we're going to find out how quickly the youth can grow up. While junior backcourt mates Eric Hayes and Greivis "Gravy" Vasquez have logged enough minutes in the last two seasons to be considered veterans, the key to Maryland's success will rest in the hands of guys like Cliff Tucker, Braxton Dupree, Adrian Bowie and Jerome Burney. And you know even Sean Mosley and Jin Soo Kim, two brand-spankin-new guys will get their shots (literally). Greivis is undoubtedly the leader, but he can't try too hard to win by himself - it was his downfall last year. Lots of scoring from different players and trying to limit turnovers will be how this team wins games. Interior offense and defense could be huge concerns.

THE STARS: No matter how much he's hated by his own fans, Greivis Vasquez can single-handedly compel his team to win or fail miserably. Therefore he's the leader. He had some amazing statistics last year: 17 ppg, 6.8 apg, 5.7 rpg and even posted a respectable assist-to-turnover ratio (1.55) despite perception that he couldn't hold onto the ball for beans. True, he gives away turnovers, but he's probably the best point guard in the conference, not to mention among the best in the country. Appreciate him. However, Vasquez's greatest problem has been trying to do it all. His shooting percentages aren't that great, and he could fluxuate wildly with his shooting and how he controlled tempo of the game. He sometimes sees opportunities that aren't there when he gets anxious, so he'll have to learn how to control his impulses.

Eric Hayes is probably a starter at shooting guard or point guard (it's really up to whatever Gary wants to do) and hopefully will actually provide his much-ballyhooed outside shooting. His defense is relatively weak around the perimeter and he has trouble creating his own shot. With the rise of sophomore Adrian Bowie, Hayes will have to really perform better than he did last year. Hayes' fan base should pray his foot injury has healed since last year. However, even off the bench, he can still provide this team with pinpoint passing and consistent shooting, especially if he can weasel his way to the foul line more often.

Junior Landon Milbourne was a solid contributor (8.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg) last year if an unspectacular one. This year will be different because he'll actually get starter minutes, possibly as many as 30 per game. Add that idea to the fact his shooting and strength have improved, we're looking at a core player for this team who will hopefully gain consistency that caught on toward the end of last season. There's talk he'll start at the 4-spot in place of a bigger guy to make up for the lack of skill at that position and clear some of the crowded backcourt. If Gary chooses to do this, Milbourne will probably end up with about 13-14 ppg and 6-7 rpg. He's not as vocal as GV, but he can lead the team with improved play.

ON THE RISE: Adrian Bowie has got to be mentioned first. He captured the imagination of Terp fans last year when he showed his ability to steal and drive against bigger guards. This year, it appears Bowie's shooting is better from three and he's as quick as ever. Although Gary is loyal to a fault to his upperclassmen, I can't see a scenario with things going as they currently are where Bowie doesn't eventually eclipse Hayes in the starting lineup (unless the lineup is Bowie, Hayes, Vasquez at 1, 2, and 3).

Sophomore Cliff Tucker similarly has more confidence and is moving better with the ball. His size and speed combo will make him a great wing threat this year. Depending on Milbourne's starting position, he might make the starting roster at the 3-spot. The question is can he guard and improve his rebounding? That's going to be the weak spots of this team, and if he can do those things, he'll fill an area of great need and carve himself an integral place in this squad.

QUESTION MARKS: Let's go with every big man on the Maryland roster. Sophomore Braxton Dupree looks like he might win the starting center job by virtue of being the best offensive player in the crowd and hustling harder this year. However, he still lacks the athleticism you want to see in a scoring big man and his defense is a liability. Redshirt sophomore Jerome Burney could establish himself as heir to the Rejection Throne that James Gist left behind at graduation. However, he doesn't rebound consistently enough for a man with his size and sheer athleticism, and you would definitely love to see him score more than two points (on free throws) against friggin' Northwood University. Dino Gregory and Dave Neal don't really look like they're going to do much, and frosh giant Steve Goins is too far away from being court-ready.

Please consider this: James Gist and Bambale Osby averaged a combined 27.4 ppg, 14.4 rpg, and were the second- and third-best blockers in the ACC. Do you believe for a second this group of FIVE post players can replicate or replace those numbers this year? Milbourne might still give this group some juice, but as things are, it's not overly impressive. Can they step it up enough to at least win?

FABULOUS FRESHMEN: Sean Mosley and Jin Soo Kim, despite high school highlights or anything anyone might have seen in any sort of exhibition game, remain mostly unknown quantities. As much as fans have speculated Mosley could be a starter this year, I'd say it's doubtful given Gary's history of playing upperclassmen who have been in the system. As excited as I am personally about Kim's sensational debut, he still has a lot left to prove, not the least of which he won't injured against 230-240 lb. guys his height. They are special, and I would guess that at the very least they'll see about eight minutes each, but there are a lot of people Gary needs to give time to in the backcourt, and time can stretch thin. Also, these guys are surefire scorers, but how well can they defend? The best defenders will get the most minutes this year - everyone back there can score.

THE STRENGTHS: Guards and small forwards... offensively. We have quick athletes who can actually shoot better this year. Many of the young'uns from last year have improved confidence and will be able to take on greater responsibility. I can see about 50-60 ppg coming from this group as the year goes on, and Maryland could be one of the top scoring teams in the ACC this year if they can come up with a good mix of slashing and shooting. Between the hard drives and the threes (not to mention free throw shooting which was outstanding last game), there's a scoring machine lying in wait.

THE WEAKNESSES: Interior scoring and general defense. Let's face it. We're missing Gist and Boom like the Dickens. Gilchrist's transfer (and arguably Shane Walker's) really hurt us. There is no one who will fill the center/power forward roles who can definitely score with a variety of post moves. Dupree and Neal have limitations, and everyone else is fairly raw. Kim might see some minutes here, and he can score, but he might not, either. Plus, who's going to be the main blocker? Burney? He can do it... but he needs to actually DO it.

Also last year, the perimeter was like a sinkhole for quick guards and forwards. We were torched by Eric Maynor, Sean Singletary, Jonny Flynn and DeMarcus Nelson. Hell, we were torched by crappy fast guards too, like American's Derrick Mercer. Hayes and Vasquez are still presumed starters, so it's up to them to shore up the outside. There is absolutely no (NONE) chance of success if the back three are opening up the gates too often for drives to the hoop. The only way we can hope to win is make opposing offenses one dimensional and force them to work harder to get inside where the really weak spots are. A porous perimeter that leads into a toothless inside D won't get us anywhere, even if we average 80 ppg.

OUTLOOK: To put it briefly, we'll be lucky to make it to the NCAA Tournament.

But you never know for sure. There could still be some surprises. We'll start finding out tonight.

Go Terps!

Photos courtesy of baltimoresun.com.

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