Greetings from Comcast Center, site of the National Invitational Tournament matchup between host and No. 2 seed Maryland and third-seeded Denver. The Terrapins shook off a rusty first half Tuesday night to down Niagara by 16 points, while the Pioneers needed a late spurt to get past Ohio. The winner moves onto the NIT quarterfinals to face the winner of Saturday’s game between No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Stanford.
The drill is known. Pregame links are below, as are some pregame notes. I’m on Twitter and the discussion thread is open. Thanks for reading and enjoy the game.
>> Niagara’s Antoine Mason shook his hips and crossed over his dribble, trying to speed past a defender who just wouldn’t budge. Spins and stutter steps failed too. Each move was met by a brick wall named Pe’Shon Howard.
As Howard has reinvented himself in recent weeks, eschewing most of the flash – “most” because he still fires no-look, between-the-legs passes – that characterized the first half of his season, he’s become Maryland’s lock-down perimeter defender, assuming the most challenging of assignments, regardless of height. Over the past seven games, he’s defended North Carolina’s Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston (each twice), Wake Forest’s C.J. Harris (twice), Virginia’s Joe Harris, Duke’s Seth Curry and Niagara’s Mason.
Bullock, Hairston, C.J. Harris and Mason all scored above their season averages against Maryland, but Harris attempted 15 and 16 field-goals in their two meetings, while Mason needed 16 to do so. Taller players can still get shots off when guarded by the 6-foot-3 Howard, but they’re always hotly contested.
“Pe’Shon never gets – unless it’s me – credit for how well he guard,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “He did a great job again tonight. Mason is hard to guard. He shot a lot of free throws but they weren’t all on Pe’Shon.”
Howard also hasn’t committed more than one turnover over the past five games, averaging 3.6 assists per game over that span. He’s begun attacking the basket more and getting to the free-throw line, even after shooting 0 for 3 from three-point range against Duke.
“He’s another reason we’re starting to play well,” Turgeon said. “We have a lot of guys growing up finally. They are growing up and realize how hard you have to work. They have had some success and they feel good about it. Has our program turned a corner? Yeah I think it has turned the corner. What level, I don’t know. We’re mentally and physically tougher and a better road team. I know those weren’t true road games down in North Carolina but we played three North Carolina schools. Guys have really toughened up and I’ve been waiting on that.”
>> With Denver rotating no player taller than 6-7, Maryland might be forced into another small-lineup battle. If that’s the case, look for the Terps to press and speed up the Pionners’ methodical offense, the nation’s second-slowest according to KenPom.com.
“It’s been good for us, in different ways, taking teams out of their offense or getting steals,” Turgeon said. “First half [against Niagara], we got a couple steals, went up 9-2. They wore down, got tired, played guys 20, 18, 17 minutes the first half.”
>> Denver’s win over Ohio was the program’s first ever victory in Div. I postseason play. Beating Maryland would set the school record for single-season victories with 23.
In today’s WaPo: Terps soldier on in NIT
Game preview: Maryland vs. Denver
On the blog: More steps forward for Faust, Aronhalt