After trying their best to squander a stellar first half against Yale in the NCAA tournament’s opening round, the Tigers (27-6) are back on the floor looking to make their first Sweet 16 since 2006 against Maryland (23-10).
LSU and Maryland is the opening game of the Round of 32 and the winner advances to the East Regional semifinals in Washington D.C. The winner will play either the No. 2 seeded Michigan State Spartans or 10th seeded Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Maryland, like LSU, advanced to the second round after getting all it wanted from a lower-seeded mid major. For LSU, it was Yale; in Maryland’s case, it was the 11th seeded Belmont Bruins. Maryland trailed Belmont 40-34 at the half but came back and held on in the waning seconds of regulation to avoid the upset. Maryland’s Darryl Morsell deflected a pass on Belmont’s final possession to seal the win.
Maryland is a solid team that finished fifth in the Big 10, which is arguably the NCAA’s best basketball conference top-to-bottom. Unlike LSU, and Yale for that matter, Maryland’s style of basketball is in direct contrast to the Tigers’. Maryland plays more like Florida and that should cause concern for LSU. After Florida beat LSU in Baton Rouge, Will Wade predicted that a team like Florida would be the one to end LSU’s season. Well, here we are.
Maryland plays at a slower pace, scoring only 71 points a game. But what they lack in scoring, they make up for in defense, ranking 35th in the entire country in points allowed. Maryland’s also top-25 in blocks per game, averaging nearly five, and opposing field goal percentage, holding teams to 39.7 percent. And Maryland’s one of the few teams that has the length that’s comparable to LSU’s
Sophomore center Bruno Fernando and freshman forward Jalen Smith each stand at 6’10”. Fernando is a first-team All-Big 10 selection, where he was first in the conference in field goal percent (62), second in rebounds (10.5), and had 20 double-doubles. Fernando’s a borderline first round pick in the upcoming NBA Draft and, as one scout said, “if he catches it with his back to the basket you’re dead. He’s going to bury you.”
Smith, on the other hand, was the No. 16 player coming out of high school and his 11 point, 6 rebound average earned him a place on the conference’s All-Freshman team. In Fernando and Smith, Maryland has a duo that can match up with Naz Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams.
Maryland also has a solid collection of guards in junior Anthony Cowan Jr. and freshman Eric Ayala. Cowan leads the team in scoring and assists with 16 and four respectively. Ayala, on the other hand, can be lethal from three, shooting 42 percent this season. The duo struggled in the Terrapins’ opening game against Belmont, though, combining to shoot 8-31 and 3-15 from three.
Saturday’s game comes down to who can enforce their style of play on the other. If LSU can play the entire game like their first half against Yale, the Tigers can run Maryland out the gym. But if Maryland can put LSU in a headlock and slow the game to a halt, LSU could see its season end. LSU needs to play smart Saturday, which is to say they cannot afford to quit attacking the paint and settle for outside jumpers. If LSU gets three happy like they did against Yale in the second half, they’re doing Maryland a favor. Another thing to watch is Tiger turnovers: Maryland is 352nd in all of Division I basketball in creating turnovers. Is LSU careful with the ball or do they gift Maryland a few extra possessions? If its the former, you could maybe start looking at hotels in D.C., if it’s the latter, don’t be surprised to see LSU back home Saturday evening.