On Thursday, the Maryland Terrapins (24-8) square up with the Xavier Musketeers (21-13) in an evening West Region battle. As Xavier sets their eyes on the coveted Cinderella title, Maryland looks to prove their high seed is warranted.
Xavier entered the 2016-17 season with high expectations, and deservedly so. Returning an elite backcourt of Edmond Sumner and Trevon Bluiett, the first half of the season went as projected.
The Musketeers posted a 13-2 record and ranked 15th in the country. From there, though, the tailspin began. Xavier ended the season just 10-11, including a final 3-7 stretch of futility. To add injury to insult, Sumner was lost to an ACL tear in January.
6th seed Maryland saw a similar drop off in production as the season wore on. After a 20-2 start, the Terrapins crushed all positive momentum during a 4-6 finish. A key player also went down for the season in 7’1” front court monster Michael Cekovsky.
Despite their lackluster regular season capping performances, Maryland and Xavier should feel right at home in the NCAA Tournament.
For Xavier, they have only missed the tourney once in the past 10 seasons, including four Sweet 16s and an Elite 8 during the span.
Maryland has not matched Xavier’s level of NCAA Tournament success. Overall, though, they have done well reaching the postseason apex. 6 of the last 10 Tournaments have showcased the Terrapins. In last year’s dance, Maryland advanced to the Sweet 16.
As each team prepares for a deep tournament run, let’s look at some key factors to the game.
Who Will Control the Paint?
Maryland and Xavier both feature a perimeter heavy attack, as neither team possesses a dominate interior presence. With all the defensive focus likely placed on limiting outside shooters and lane penetration, winning the battle in the paint will be paramount.
For Maryland, the responsibility falls on 6’11” senior Damonte Dodd. Though he only averages 6.4 points and 4.4 rebounds, his ability to eliminate shots at the rim and neutralize second chance points will be crucial. On the year, Dodd finished third in the Big Ten in blocked shots per game with two, and for Maryland to be successful, he will need to come up big.
Xavier’s front court will feature 6’9” senior RaShid Gaston. Gaston averages 7.9 points and 6.4 rebounds per game for the Musketeers. In Xavier’s 72-67 loss to Creighton, the big put up 12 points and a tremendous 17 rebounds. If he can recreate that kind of production, the Terrapins will be in trouble.
How Will Maryland’s Freshmen Perform on the Big Stage?
All season, Maryland has relied on freshmen Anthony Cowan, Justin Jackson and Kevin Huerter to play big minutes. On the year, the trio have all averaged over 27 minutes per game. Now playing on the biggest stage of their early college career, the performances of the three will be a huge factor in the Terrapins’ success.
While their play on the season has been largely stellar, there have also been some growing pains. Over their final five games, the freshmen have combined to shoot 53-132 from the floor, good for 40%. For Maryland to be successful, Cowen, Jackson and Huerter must shoot more efficiently from the field. In a game featuring two high powered, perimeter dominated offenses, a poor shooting stretch could spell the end for the Terrapins.
The Maryland and Xavier matchup should result in a tight, high scoring affair. Melo Trimble and Trevon Bluiett will both likely see a lot of success. If the Terrapins or Musketeers can find a way to limit the other’s high-profile guard, a victory should come with relative ease.
Chances are, though, Trimble and Bluiett perform at a high level. Assuming they do, the game will come down to the trenches and the play of the Maryland freshmen. The winner of those battles will be playing this weekend.