Maryland returns to the NCAA tournament for only the second time in the last five seasons on Thursday afternoon.
The No. 10-seed Terrapins (20-13) face the No. 7-seed California Golden Bears (22-10) in an ACC-Pacific-10 showdown in the first round.
The Terps earned an at-large bid after beating North Carolina State and Wake Forest in the ACC tournament while the Golden Bears finished in a third-place tie with Arizona State in the Pac-10.
Both Maryland and Cal rely on strong play from their guards and lack any consistent threats in the frontcourt.
The Terps rely on pressure and penetration from its guards to create offense while coach Mike Montgomery’s Golden Bears lead the nation in three-point shooting, making 43.4 percent of its attempts.
Cal’s three-point shooting is more selective than other long-distance shooting teams like Duke that take over 700 attempts in a season. The Golden Bears took only 468 three-point attempts, 106 fewer than Maryland.
Maryland likes to occasionally switch between man-to-man defense and a 3-2 zone to compensate for its lack of size, but the Golden Bears’ long-range shooting may prevent coach Gary Williams from using this strategy. Cal’s junior guard and leading scorer Jerome Randle makes 46.8 percent of his three-pointers, third overall in the nation.
Guarding the three-pointer is a glaring weakness for the Terps, ranking 225th in the nation and allowing opponents to shoot 35.1 percent from behind the three-point line. If Randle and forward Theo Robertson begin draining long-range shots, the Terps will be in serious trouble.
To advance to the second round, Maryland will need to guard Cal’s shooters closely and refrain from gambling for steals, a trap the Terps often fall into, leaving opportunities for wide-open shooters. Cal’s half-court offense will take advantage if Maryland takes too many chances defensively.
Junior guard Greivis Vasquez leads Maryland in scoring, rebounding, and assists, but reserve guard Eric Hayes has recently become a reliable scoring threat for the Terps. If Cal begins shooting from beyond the arc, Hayes’ long-range shooting will be needed to keep the Terrapins in the game.
Hayes, averaging 10.1 points per game, has sparked the Terps in the postseason, scoring a career-high 21 points against N.C. State in the first round of the conference tournament and 20 against Duke in the semifinal loss.
Another key for the Terps could be the shooting of forward Dave Neal. The 6-7 forward hits 38.9 percent from the three-point line, strong enough to lure a bigger defender away from the paint to contest his shot. This could free up the inside for Vasquez and guard Adrian Bowie to drive to the hoop and get to the foul line.
If the game comes down to foul shooting, the two teams figure to be evenly matched. Maryland shoots 76.8 percent from the line while Cal makes 75.6 percent of its free throws.
This is a tough one to predict given the similarities between the two. While their guards have different strengths, each team lives and dies with the play of its backcourt players. Both teams lack a consistent big man, so the inside game does not figure to play a major factor in the game.
It appears Maryland might be catching Cal at the right time. The Golden Bears have lost four of their last six games while the Terps recovered from a crucial road loss at Virginia in the regular season finale before making their run in the ACC tournament to regain favor in the eyes of the selection committee.
If the Golden Bears’ long-distance shooting comes out hot, the Terps will need Hayes and Vasquez to counter to keep them in the game.
Look for Maryland’s pressure and trapping defense to keep Cal off-balanced and prevent their shooters from getting open looks consistently.
Vasquez is the emotional leader of the Terps and is fully capable of taking over the game if he comes out strong.
Gary Williams has not lost a first round game in the NCAA tournament since 1997. The streak continues as the Terrapins move on to the second round to face the powerhouse Memphis Tigers.
The pick: Maryland 72, California 66