Season to Date: Two weeks ago, Maryland appeared to be headed to the NIT for the third season in a row. The Terps were 3-6 in the ACC, with their only quality wins coming against NCAA bubble teams (Michigan State, Illinois, Georgia Tech). But a four-game winning streak now has Gary Williams' squad on the brink of a return to the Big Dance.
Streaking: Their four-straight wins -- Duke, at NC State, at Clemson and FSU -- have all been by double digits. The commond threads in the victories have been pretty basic: tough defense and good shooting. Over the four games, Maryland has shot 50% from the floor and forced an average of 16.0 turnovers. "I'm beginning to believe in those guys," Gary Williams said after the win against Florida State. "They're developing an inner strength. Look, we've had to regroup. I had to put some pressure on some guys to play early in their careers. Right now, we're very positive about ourselves."
Stressing Defense: With D.J. Strawberry leading the perimeter defensive effort and the athletic post duo of James Gist and Ekene Ibekwe guarding the rim, Maryland has emerged as one of the league's top defensive teams. Strawberry, a 6-5 senior wing, developed a reputation early in his Terrapin career as a lockdown defender and that continues this season, including grabbing 2.2 steals per game. And while neither Ibekwe nor Gist will tip the scales, they are bouncy and aggressive 6-9 power forwards that are ranked first and third, respectively, in the ACC in blocked shots. As a team, the Terps lead the league in holding opponents to 38.6% field goal shooting and 29.0% three-point shooting.
Hot Shooting: Don't think Maryland is merely a defense-oriented team. They can score, too -- in fact, the Terps are now second in the ACC in scoring, at 79.6 points per game. Led by Mike Jones (43%), Maryland is the ACC's top three-point shooting team at 39.3 percent, though they actually don't rely heavily on the outside shot .
Key Points: The biggest difference between last season's NIT squad and this year's (apparently) NCAA-bound Terps? The addition of two freshmen point guards. Greivis Vasquez and Eric Hayes have both been reliable ball handlers (combined 2.17 a:t ratio in ACC play), while also keeping defenses honest by hitting outside shots. Over the last three games, they have combined for a remarkable 42 assists and only 10 turnovers. And they are making their teammates better, too. Last season, D.J. Strawberry struggled playing out of position at the point -- this season he's thriving off the ball, leading the team in scoring (14.7 ppg) and he's even now in the top 10 in the ACC's assist-to-turnover rankings. Another beneficiary of more reliable point guard play has been James Gist, who's been the Terps' leading scorer in conference play and shooting over 56 percent.
Series History: North Carolina leads the all-time series against Maryland, 113-53, including a 45-33 advantage in games played in College Park. The Tar Heels have won five straight in the series. Last season, UNC won 77-62 in College Park and 81-57 in Chapel Hill. The Terps shot a combined 31.4 percent in the two games and Tyler Hansbrough averaged highs of 18.0 points and 7.5 rebounds.
Projected Starters: 21 Greivis Vasquez (6-5, 195, Fr.) – 10.0 ppg, 4.4 apg 23 Mike Jones (6-5, 204, Sr.) - 12.5 ppg, 2.9 rpg 2 D.J. Strawberry (6-5, 201, Sr.) – 14.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg 15 James Gist (6-8, 223, Jr.) – 12.9 ppg, 7.0 rpg 25 Ekene Ibekwe (6-9, 220, Sr.) – 10.3 ppg, 7.6 rpg Key Reserves: 50 Bambale Osby (6-8, 250, Jr.) – 5.7 ppg, 3.5 rpg 5 Eric Hayes (6-3, 175, Fr.) – 5.5 ppg, 4.0 apg 24 Parrish Brown (6-1, 175, Sr.) – 3.6 ppg, 1.0 apg 31 Will Bowers (7-1, 262, Sr.) – 2.5 ppg, 1.8 rpg
Strawberry ....... Ibekwe
Gist ....... Vasquez
Jones ....... Hayes
(Photos courtesy AP)