Virginia / Maryland Preview; Cavaliers’ visit a big opportunity for Terps
Off to a 6-0 start to the season, Maryland’s back in the Top 25 for the first time since March 6, 2017. Wednesday night Mark Turgeon’s team will face its biggest test of the season to date, as No. 4 Virginia visits College Park. While the matchup with the Cavaliers will certainly be a challenge, it also represents an opportunity for a program that is looking to get back to the NCAA tournament after missing out last season. A win over Virginia, which won the ACC last season and once again has the look of a conference title contender, would give the Terrapins the marquee win that last year’s group lacked (if it had done enough to get into the bubble conversation to begin with).
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Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers are also 6-0, which includes a three-game run through the Battle 4 Atlantis last week. After scoring 74 points in a comfortable win over Middle Tennessee, Virginia won tight, lower-scoring affairs against Dayton and Wisconsin to take home the crown. Many of the key names are the same as last season, save the departed Devon Hall and Isaiah Wilkins, while newcomers Kihei Clark and Braxton Key have roles within Virginia’s eight-man rotation.
The first name to know with this team is 6-foot-7 redshirt sophomore forward De’Andre Hunter, who many believe to be Virginia’s best NBA prospect. Hunter (16.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 2.3 apg) enters Wednesday’s game leading Virginia in scoring and assists, and he’s put up solid shooting percentages as well (61.3% FG, 46.7% 3PT, 75.0% FT). The Philadelphia native has scored at least 20 points in three of Virginia’s six games this season after having two such performances in 2017-18. While Virginia has more experienced options to call upon within its offense, Hunter is the team’s most efficient player and toughest cover to boot.
At the guard spots Virginia has relied on juniors Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy to lead the way, with the tandem combining to average 26.2 points and 7.3 assists per game, with Jerome leading the team in assists (4.5 apg). And the 6-foot-5 point guard has taken a noticeable step forward this season, as he’s averaging 14.0 points per game and shooting 47.4% from the field, 46.7% from three (5.0 attempts per game) and 72.7% from the foul line. Last season, Jerome shot just 42.1% from the field and 37.9% from three on 4.5 attempts per game. As for Guy, while his overall field goal percentage is up slightly from last season (42.6% compared to 41.5%) he’s shooting just 37.1% from three on 5.8 attempts per game. But it should be noted that through six games his assist percentage of 16.3% is much higher than his number from a season ago (9.9%) and slightly higher than the number he produced as a freshman (15.2%).
Joining the ranks on the perimeter this season is freshman Kihei Clark, who’s had a noticeable impact on the Cavaliers. The 5-foot-10 Californian gives Virginia speed on the perimeter that it lacked last season, which has an impact on both ends of the floor. Offensively Clark’s speed with the ball can open things up for his teammates, and there will be times when he’s on the court with both Jerome and Guy (this trio started the win over Wisconsin) for that very reason as Jerome can them operate off of the ball. Defensively Clark can be a pest, and while Virginia isn’t a full-court pressure team by any means they have a guard capable of forcing opposing guards to make rushed decisions. The freshman will be one of the candidates to fill the other two spots in the starting lineup, with Hunter, Jerome and Guy locks to be on the court for the opening tip.
Clark replaced Alabama transfer Braxton Key (5.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg), a versatile forward who is capable of making plays for his teammates in a point forward role, in the starting lineup for the win over Wisconsin. Key’s transition to Virginia hasn’t been seamless but that’s to be expected when comparing the Cavaliers’ more deliberate tempo and pack-line defensive principles to the system he played in under Avery Johnson at Alabama. But given his versatile skill set Key should be fine in time, and his presence allows Virginia to take advantage of mismatches at the four with either he or Hunter.
The fifth starting spot has been split between senior Jack Salt and junior Mamadi Diakite, with the latter averaging 7.3 points and 2.2 rebounds per game. Salt isn’t much of a scorer, as evidenced by his average of just 3.0 points per game, but he is a better rebounder (3.8 rpg) than Diakite. Salt has played just over 19 minutes per game so far and Diakite a shade over 16, with redshirt sophomore Jay Huff averaging 10.4 minutes per contest in five appearances.
Virginia essentially runs with a rotation that goes nine deep, with Marco Anthony averaging just over ten minutes per game in four appearances. They play at a slow tempo, as they currently rank dead last in college basketball in adjusted tempo per Ken Pomeroy’s numbers, but they stay within themselves offensively and are downright stingy on the other end of the floor. A mainstay at or near the top of the defensive efficiency ratings in recent years, Virginia currently ranks second in that category. While Maryland will certainly have the desire to speed things up, it’s more important to be efficient in their possessions than it is to focus solely on getting Virginia to play fast. Many have tried that approach, and more often than not those teams have failed spectacularly.
One key for Maryland are to make solid decisions with the basketball, which will fall largely upon the shoulders of Anthony Cowan, Eric Ayala and Darryl Morsell. Virginia won’t actively look to pressure, as noted above, but teams can get so caught up in trying to play fast against the Cavaliers that they wind up making mistakes and turning the ball over. And in a game that’s likely to be low with regards to to the number of possessions for each team, turnovers are of even greater importance. Another key: make sure Bruno Fernando stays out of foul trouble.
The sophomore big man has been very productive while on the court, shooting 77.4% from the field and averaging 16.2 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game. But he’s also averaging 5.5 fouls per 40 minutes, which has been a factor in his averaging just 24.2 minutes per game. While Hunter and Key have the potential to be a matchup problem for Maryland, there’s enough talent on the other end with Fernando and Jalen Smith leading the way. But that only comes to fruition if the former can remain on the floor.
The Xfinity Center should be rocking Wednesday night for this matchup of ranked teams, with an old rival from the Terps’ ACC days making a rare visit to College Park. And it’s an opportunity for the program to not only show that it’s headed in the right direction, but to grab a marquee non-conference win as well. Do that, and Maryland will have the momentum it needs with Big Ten play set to begin this weekend.