Hog Blog: Maryland continues to impress
You can not talk about what's happening in the ACC right now without talking about Maryland. I think people thought they would be good, I don't think people thought they would be this good. They have as much firepower from different positions on the court than any team in the ACC, including Duke, and I think that was evidenced in its win at Virginia Tech when Jake Layman, a freshman who hasn't really done anything to date, gets the start and he scores 20 points.
Their freshmen have exceeded everybody's expectations. Seth Allen is a great guard. Shaquille Cleare is a big body inside, and he's playing great. And then the transfer from Xavier, Dezmine Wells, can be the leading scorer on any given night.
Of course, then there's Alex Len. Here's a guy who a year ago had real trouble with the English language -- he's from the Ukraine. He had real trouble adjusting to the American style of game, but I don't think anybody put in more hard work this offseason than him. His skill set has really improved, and I think every draft expert would now tell you that Alex Len is going to be a lottery pick in the NBA Draft. This is a guy who, while he may not be as skilled as Mason Plumlee, is going to hold his own with Plumlee when Maryland plays Duke.
Maryland has a 13-game win streak going right now. That ties the longest in school history, which was set by the 1932 Terrapin team, so this is a pretty big deal that they've got going right now.
As for Mark Turgeon, when you're coaching 18-, 19- and 20-year-old kids, a lot of guys are going to have off nights. So can you survive when you're star has an off night? Maryland is one team that I know can say, "Yes." They have, at least, five guys that can score 20 points or more on any given night. There are not many teams that can say that.
On that note, Turgeon is my early Coach of the Year.
I think the biggest surprise for me has been Florida State. I thought with a veteran like Michael Snaer leading them and all the young talent that they had coming in that they would have won more games. I called Florida State a couple of times and I thought they looked good, they've just been inconsistent. And I think that's a matter of having new players and new chemistry. This program went into rare territory last year when they won the ACC Championship, and I think they realize now how hard it is to get there.
But I think what you have to remember about last year: This team did not gel until February a year ago. And they won the ACC title. So there's still time.
Overall, I think it's a matter of getting used to playing high-level college basketball. A lot of these players have never played the game at this level. They have excelled at whatever level they have been at previously. They have shown that they have the skill set, the speed, the quickness. They're able to shoot the ball well, but going against this kind of competition night in and night out is a reality check for a lot of players. It's something that you have to adjust your game to. And I think that's what these Florida State players, these new players, are doing right now. I don't think you can underestimate team chemistry. Last year's Florida State team had a lot of it, but that takes a little bit of time to develop.
It's not easy to play defense the way Leonard Hamilton wants you to play it. It's proven to be very, very successful when they all get on the same page. Florida State, year in and year out, is the toughest defensive team for anybody to play against in the ACC.
They can't find an identity offensively right now. Who is their go-to offensive player? You might say Reggie Bullock, but he's been hurt. He came back and had a pretty decent game against Virginia. I think P.J. Hairston is really going to have to fulfill promise that he had at one point in time. He has to be a double-figure scorer night in and night out for Carolina to be successful. Leslie McDonald is another guy in that category. He was the leading scorer in Memphis high school history, and this kid has been known to really fill it up. And this is another guy coming off a knee injury, coming off where he missed a year, but he did not even score against Virginia.
North Carolina has got to have points from Leslie McDonald to win games. The Tar Heels can not have goose eggs in the points column from him. It can't happen.
I think that Paige is different than the past few guys that have worn No. 5 in Chapel Hill. It's interesting that all these guys have worn No. 5, but he's different in that he is more of a scorer than Kendall Marshall. I would like to see him distribute the ball a little bit more and be more of that playmaker. But, again, the things he did a year ago in high school he can't do today in the ACC. He's learning that. He's learning what he can do, what he can't do, what he needs to do. But he has got to become a leader on this team. The point guard in Roy Williams' offense really is the coach on the floor. It's tough for a freshman to do that, but he has got to learn to do it.
You go back and look at the Ty Lawsons, the Kendall Marshalls, the Raymond Feltons: All those guys were unbelievably talented point guard. It's almost a bit unfair to compare, but Paige has to play that position somewhere near the level that those other great players did in order for Carolina to have the success they want to have.
Much like Florida State, Virginia is another team that gets it done on the defensive side of the ball. You're never going to see a pretty game from Virginia. A win is a win, though. They don't want to call it winning ugly, but you're not going to get an offensive shootout from the Cavaliers.
That's one of the things that is frustrating about playing Virginia: They will not let you get into any kind of an offensive rhythm.
Point guard Jontel Evans is a big key to that team. Now, it's got some freshman who have played well, but Evans coming back in a game against North Carolina gave everybody around him a lift. Evans is not a guy that you're going to say, "OK, he's big offensively." He's one of those people that does all the little things. He makes everybody around him better. He's a senior. He's a veteran. He's been there.
On the defensive end is where he really stands out. He'd be the first to tell you that he's not where he wants to be defensively yet, but when he gets back to full strength it's going to be a real plus for this Virginia team. He's able to make assists; he's able to penetrate opposing defenses. He lifts the rest of the team up.
But the heart and the soul of this Virginia team is Joe Harris. I thought against North Carolina he came up big just like he has done throughout his career. As Joe Harris goes, so goes Virginia. And if they get Akil Mitchell healthy, who I thought had a gutsy performance on a bad ankle against North Carolina, watch out.
This is a team that last year found its way to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a long time, and I think they've got a chance to get back there with a healthy Jontel Evans.