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Preview: Michigan at Maryland

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Trying to keep its postseason hopes alive, Michigan travels to College Park to battle Maryland in their first-ever meeting as conference foes.

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

The Basics

Who: Maryland (23-5, 11-4 B1G)

When: Saturday, February 28th, at Noon ET (ESPN)

Where: Xfinity Center -- College Park, MD

The Stage

In a season that's been full of frustration and disappointment, Michigan is basking in the bliss that came with its 64-57 win over rival Ohio State. The win not only prevented the Buckeyes from earning their first win in Ann Arbor since 2011 but snapped Michigan's five-game losing streak. For the first time this month, it's been an enjoyable week, and Michigan can keep these positive feelings flowing with a win at Maryland tomorrow.

But tomorrow's meeting with Maryland is important for reasons other than the emotional. First, Michigan's hopes of participating in the NCAA Tournament rest on winning the Big Ten Tournament for all intents and purposes, so where Michigan is seeded is critical. If the season ended today, Michigan would be in the No. 8/No. 9 game, which means Michigan would face No. 1 seed Wisconsin in the quarterfinals with a win:

Big Ten Tournament Bracket - 02.26.2015

(Credit: Big Ten Network)

This is not ideal. The odds Michigan wins the Big Ten Tournament are slim already but colliding with Wisconsin, who's head and shoulders above the rest of the Big Ten, in the quarterfinals would be a death wish. Michigan's best shot to make a run in the Big Ten Tournament is to be on the other side of the bracket where Maryland and Purdue, not Wisconsin and Michigan State, may be waiting. This means Michigan must leap to the No. 7 seed. However, to do this, Michigan most likely needs to win out and receive help:

Michigan's Chase for the No. 7 Seed
Place School Big Ten Record Remaining Schedule
t-5 Iowa 9-6 at PSU, at IU, NW
t-5 Ohio State 9-6 PUR, at PSU, WISC
7 Indiana 9-7 IOWA, MSU
t-8 Illinois 7-8 NW, NEB, at PUR
t-8 Michigan 7-8 at MD, at NW, RU
10 Minnesota 6-10 WISC, PSU
11 Northwestern 5-10 at ILL, MICH, at IOWA

So, if Michigan loses to Maryland tomorrow, Michigan's path to the Big Ten Tournament title and the auto-bid would have to go through Wisconsin in the quarterfinals. Yikes.

Second, regardless of the NCAA Tournament, Michigan needs wins if it wants to appear in the postseason after John Beilein said that he would entertain an invitation to the NIT but not the CBI or CIT. The Wolverines are 14-13 and need to remain above .500 to be considered by the NIT given its past selection procedures. Right now, the Wolverines are a No. 6 seed in two different NIT projections. Though a loss wouldn't kill Michigan's NIT hopes, especially with Northwestern and Rutgers still on the schedule, adding a second signature win to the resume could put Michigan in great position to make the cut.

So there's plenty on the line for Michigan tomorrow.

Them

In its first season in the conference, Maryland was expected to be a middling Big Ten team after suffering mass attrition in the offseason, but the Terrapins have far exceeded those expectations. Maryland is 23-5, second in the conference with an 11-4 Big Ten record, and owns a 7-4 record against the KenPom Top 50, which includes home wins against No. 6 Wisconsin and No. 46 Indiana, a neutral-site win against No. 15 Iowa State, road wins at No. 30 Oklahoma State and No. 50 Purdue, and a sweep of No. 23 Michigan State. Though Maryland's record doesn't reflect it because the Terrapins are a pristine 9-0 in games decided by six points or fewer, they have had a tendency to play up and down to the level of their opponent, particularly in the last month or so. This is good news for a Michigan team that could use a signature road win to bolster its resume. The bad news? Maryland is 17-1 at the Xfinity Center. Maryland's only home loss? No. 2 Virginia. Uh oh.

Offensively, Maryland has been below average in Big Ten play. The Terrapins are ninth in offensive efficiency, scoring at at a rate of 101.1 points per 100 possessions, which is just a tad bit above Michigan. But there are two areas where they excel: (1) getting to the free-throw line and (2) shooting threes. Maryland has a free-throw rate of 42.3 percent, which is third-best in the Big Ten, and averages 21.9 free-throw attempts per game. And, because Maryland drains 75.3 percent of its freebies, the Terrapins make an absolute killing at the charity stripe. When they aren't getting to the line, they make defenses pay from deep, where they drill 37.1 percent of their triples. Other than that, there isn't much to worry about with Maryland on that end of the court. Maryland is a poor two-point-shooting team, particularly from mid-range, doesn't crash the glass hard despite being one of the tallest teams in the nation, and is loose with the basketball. Nonetheless, the Terrapins still can be a handful because of the two things at which they are superb.

Maryland is better on the defensive side of the court, where the Terrapins are fifth in efficiency in Big Ten play, surrendering 100.9 points per 100 possessions. This is where their length -- KenPom lists them as the nation's ninth-tallest team -- is more effective. With two seven-footers at its disposal, Maryland is decent at protecting the rim. In their last four games, the Terrapins have forced opponents to convert only 50 percent of their shots at the rim and have averaged over five blocks per game. They also use their length to contest shots without fouling -- second-best defensive free-throw rate in Big Ten play -- and clean up on the defensive glass -- fourth-best defensive rebounding rate in Big Ten play. However, where Maryland's length isn't a factor is the perimeter, where opponents often find themselves alone behind the three-point line. Initially, Big Ten teams were misfiring on these open looks, but, in Maryland's last nine games, opponents have made 42 percent of their three-pointers. This is where the Terrapins are most vulnerable.

Personnel

Maryland is led by a triumvirate of Terrapins.

The first is 6-foot-3 freshman point guard Melo Trimble -- a former top-50 recruit that's established himself as an All-Big Ten-caliber player in one season. Trimble averages 16.1 points per game, which is sixth in the Big Ten and leads Maryland, and he scores them in an efficient manner (116.2 offensive rating). He's a great three-point shooter (38.8 pct.), particularly from straightaway and the right side, but Trimble is at his best when he penetrates into the paint and draws fouls. Not only is his free-throw rate (72.4 pct.) second in the Big Ten, he's an 87.5-percent free-throw shooter, which is why no one's made more freebies than Trimble in the Big Ten. Add in that he can find his teammates for open looks (20.9 assist rate), and it's not difficult to understand why Trimble is one of 17 finalists for the Bob Cousy Award, which is given to the nation's top point guard.

The second is 6-foot-5 senior guard Dez Wells -- a volume scorer who just played the game of his life. Wells scores 15.1 points per game, which is 10th in the Big Ten, but it takes him more shots to get there than Trimble. Wells would be more efficient if he took more threes (52.4 pct.), but he prefers mid-range jumpers, of which he knocks down only 36 percent, in isolation. Of Maryland's top trio, Wells is the guy opponents most want to dominate the ball given his offensive inefficiencies, even if he's a willing passer (24.8 assist rate), but Wells can make you pay as he just recorded 26 points (9-17 FG), seven boards, four assists, and no turnovers in Maryland's win over Wisconsin this week.

The third is 6-foot-9 junior forward Jake Layman -- a candidate for the Big Ten's most improved player though his production has tapered off in recent weeks. Last season, Layman was a stretch forward who hung around the perimeter and launched more threes than twos . This season, though he still can hit the outside jumper, Layman has been more aggressive and more willing to attack the rim, which is why his two-point shooting percentage (44.1 pct. to 53.7 pct.) and free-throw rate (28.5 pct. to 46.5 pct.) have jumped significantly. As a result, Layman is scoring 13.3 points per game and has sustained his individual efficiency despite a five-point increase in his usage rate (18.2 pct. to 23.3 pct.). Defensively, Layman is the best rebounder on the team, averaging 6.4 boards per game, and can protect the rim if needed -- he has five blocks in his last three games.

Maryland's other two starters are 6-foot-4 wing Richaud Pack and 6-foot-11 center Damonte Dodd. Pack is enjoying his one-year stay in College Park as a graduate transfer from North Carolina AT&T, but he's average across the board. He doesn't stand out in any statistical category, and I'd expect that to continue tomorrow because he hasn't scored more than six points in a game since January 10th. Dodd is a big man who can finish well around the rim (70 pct.) but doesn't get many chances to do so. His biggest impact is on defense, where he's a solid rebounder and fantastic shot-blocker -- his block rate is an absurd 10.4 percent -- but Dodd has a tendency to get into foul trouble quickly.

Maryland's key contributors off the bench are Jared Nickens, Evan Smotrycz, Michal Cekovsky, and Jon Graham. Nickens is a 6-foot-7 wing and Maryland's 2014 Zak Irvin -- a lethal three-point sniper who does nothing else. Smotrycz is very much like the player he was at Michigan before he transferred. He's a solid defensive rebounder and still prefers to loiter around the arc and fire threes. However, the difference is Smotrycz's three-point shooting has declined severely as he's made only 26.7 percent of his triples this season. And then there's the 7-foot-1 Cekovsky and 6-foot-8 Graham, both of whom split time as the back-up center, rebound well, and brick free throws at an alarming rate.

Game Keys

  • Make Your Threes: Maryland tends to leave three-point shooters alone on the perimeter, so it is imperative that Michigan capitalizes on those opportunities. Zak Irvin and Spike Albrecht have been feeling it from deep in recent weeks -- Irvin has made 11-of-26 threes (42.3 pct.) in his past four games, while Albrecht has drained 10-of-24 threes (41.7 pct.) in his past six -- but Aubrey Dawkins is in a four-game slump (26.7 pct.). If these three Wolverines can knock down their threes tomorrow, Maryland will be forced to extend its defense out to the perimeter, which will open space in the interior for a guy like Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman to attack the rim and finish through contact if necessary. This was the formula that undersized Indiana followed when it walloped the Terrapins in Assembly Hall to the tune of 138.8 points per 100 possessions, and it needs to be Michigan's formula tomorrow.

  • No Touching: I made it clear above that there are few teams in the nation better at drawing fouls and knocking down free throws than Maryland. To give you an idea of just how important this is to Maryland's offense, the Terrapins are 9-0 in Big Ten games in which their free-throw rate is above 40 percent and 2-4 in Big Ten games in which their free-throw rate is below 40 percent. Maryland's vulnerable when it's not taking trips to the charity stripe, so, if the Wolverines want to earn the upset, they need to keep their hands off Maryland and force the Terrapins to win with field goals, not free throws. The good news is that John Beilein's teams at Michigan never have fouled much and should be able to contest shots cleanly. The bad news is that Maryland most likely will receive the benefit of the whistle on its home floor.

  • Run the 2-3 and Hope Maryland Has an Off Night: Michigan is in a conundrum defensively. If Michigan runs its 2-3 zone, Melo Trimble, Dez Wells, Jake Layman, and Jared Nickens -- all of which shoot better than 38 percent from behind the arc -- will have open deep looks as long as they can pass through the zone. Conversely, if Michigan sets up in man, Maryland will have mismatches all over the court. Though Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman did a commendable job against phenom D'Angelo Russell on Sunday, Michigan doesn't have enough perimeter defenders to slow down the penetration of Trimble and Wells, who blew past Wisconsin's guards all night on Tuesday. I fear this will lead to numerous lay-ins for Trimble and Wells or Michigan will be forced to foul to stop their drives. And this doesn't acknowledge the issue of needing a 6-foot-6 Zak Irvin or Aubrey Dawkins to cover the 6-foot-9 Layman. Therefore, the lesser evil is for Michigan to run its 2-3 zone and hope Maryland's snipers have an off night. Plus, given that Maryland has a low assist rate and frequently relapses into isolation, those outside shots often may be contested.

  • Own a 10-Plus-Point Lead with One Minute Left: Maryland doesn't lose close games. They just don't. The Terrapins are 9-0 in games decided by six points or fewer and 13-1 in games decided by single digits. For weeks, I have argued that Maryland is bound to drop a tight one in the final minute. Yet, time and time again, Maryland continues to pile up those close wins. Does Maryland have a giant horseshoe up its behind? Did the Terrapins make an unknown sacrifice to the College Basketball Gods to be bestowed with the power to always squeak it out at the end? I don't know. But what I do know is that, given's Maryland's penchant for pulling out close wins and Michigan's late collapses in recent weeks, the Wolverines better have a sizable lead entering the final stretch if they want to record the upset.

The Outlook

I want to believe that Michigan's win against Ohio State flipped the switch for the Wolverines. I want to believe that Maryland still will be hungover from its celebration of its upset over Wisconsin. I want to believe that Michigan will win the three-point battle by a significant margin. And maybe I would believe this if Michigan hosted Maryland at the Crisler Center tomorrow. But that's not the case. Rather, this meeting will be held in College Park, where the Terrapins are 17-1 with their only home loss to No. 2 Virginia, while the Wolverines are 2-6 in true road games with their only wins against the two worst Big Ten teams in the standings: Penn State and Rutgers. Maryland is not Penn State or Rutgers. Michigan is not Virginia. Accordingly, there will be no upset tomorrow.

Maryland 67, Michigan 55