For those who have followed the Maryland basketball team all season long, it wasn't too surprising when the No. 4 seed Terps barely scraped by No. 13 seed Valparaiso by the score of 65-62 on Friday evening. After all, Maryland has been playing in tight contests consistently since its Big Ten debut against Michigan State went to double overtime. Even when seemingly inferior teams like Northwestern, Penn State, and Nebraska paid a visit to College Park, there was never a dull moment.
Playing down to the level of such opponents might make the Terps seem overrated, but there's no denying the ability of Dez Wells to come through when it counts like he did again versus Valpo. Maryland also looks quite legitimate when scoring upset victories over Wisconsin and Iowa State like it did earlier in the year. All it's going to take is one more big shot from Wells or Melo Trimble, and the Terps will be through to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003.
Standing in their way, though, will be a West Virginia team that has been playing in the Big XII against some of the best competition in the country throughout 2015. Sure, the conference has taken a hit recently due to some shocking upsets in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but going 11-7 in a league that features four of the top 16 seeds in the dance is still pretty darn impressive.
The Mountaineers did it by putting pressure on their opponents at both ends of the floor. On offense, Juwan Staten forces defenders to either foul him or get the heck out of the way while Devin Williams and Jonathan Holton gobble up boards for a bounty of second chances.
Defensively, West Virginia plays with a gambler's mentality. The team is willing to risk getting burned by the three-point shot in exchange for a chance at stealing possession. During the 2014-15 campaign, 28 percent of opponents' possessions ended in a turnovers, which was the top rate in the country. As a consequence, the Mountaineers allowed free throw attempts at the highest rate in the nation and saw their foes shoot nearly 37 percent from three-point range.
Even against teams that don't like to foul, Maryland's Trimble doesn't often have trouble getting to the charity stripe, so it will be interesting to see how West Virginia handles him. The Terps and their two ball-handling guards were very prone to losing the ball in Big Ten play, but they're also athletic enough to escape trouble and either find an open shooter or create interior space where there is none.
Give the skill of their guards, it's safe to say that Maryland will either sink or swim depending on how it deals with the West Virginia defensive pressure. However, one player who could make life a little easier on offense is Jared Nickens. The freshman has been used almost exclusively as a three-point shooter this season, and his recent 14-point outing against Valpo was one of his best so far. Even if he just stands behind the arc and waits for passes, Nickens can be a dangerous weapon and an additional outlet from defensive pressure in this game.
There's always the chance that the Terps master the Mountaineer press, keep the opposing forwards off the glass, and come away with a relatively easy win. More realistically, though? This one goes back and forth and comes down to the wire, just like most of Maryland's games in 2015.