by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
The early part of Northwestern’s nonconference schedule was a snooze. With the exception of Saturday night’s South Padre Invitational final, in which the Wildcats defeated a quality Illinois State team 72-69 in OT, there hasn’t been all that much to get the hoops juices flowing. That changes Tonight, when ACC (and soon to be Big Ten) foe Maryland visits Welsh Ryan Arena for the ACC-Big Ten challenge. To get you prepared, we’re laying out the basics, and giving you some guidance on what to watch and which players to keep an eye on. With football season officially entering an extended rest period, big-time hoops is upon us.Coach: Mark Turgeon Second Season, Record at Maryland: 21-16 (6-10 ACC) Conference: ACC Preseason Media Poll Projection: 4th Season Profile Record: 4-1 Best Win: Morehead State Worst (and only) Loss: Kentucky (72-69)
Three Players to Watch
Alex Len, Sophomore
There was never any doubt Len had the physical tools and basketball know-how to star at the Division I level. The questions about Len dealt more with his maturity, and whether or not he could transition from the European style he grew up on and morph into a more physical low-post player. He got off to a late start last season thanks to an extended NCAA query into his past participation with a professional club, but once Len found his niche in the Terrapins’ offense, he showed flashed of greatness. His progression has continued into this season, and Len has emerged as one of the best all-around frontcourt players in the country.
At 7-1, 248 pounds, and with uncanny quickness and agility, Len is an energetic force on the low block with refined skills. He dominated Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel, the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2012 according to ESPN Recruiting Nation, in Maryland’s season-opening clash with Kentucky and has continued to shine ever since. If he continues to develop, Len is a likely first-round pick in next year’s NBA draft.
Dezmine Wells, Sophomore
The prevailing consensus was that Wells wouldn’t see the court this season. After being expelled from Xavier this summer for a sexual misconduct charge, Wells was granted a transfer waiver by the NCAA thanks to an Ohio judge that nullified Xavier’s punitive actions and cleared Wells’ name. Since Wells got such a late start on summer workouts, coach Mark Turgeon was unable to integrate him into the offense until early November, when Wells was officially declared eligible.
While he struggled to find his place early on, Wells – a 6-5, 215-pound freight train with remarkable explosiveness and finishing ability – is settling nicely into Turgeon’s system. At best, Wells is a 15-point-per-night-type scorer with game-changing potential. There are few players who can match Wells’ sheer athleticism, let alone slow him down in the open court or guard him in the open floor.
Nick Faust, Sophomore
From a pure talent standpoint, Faust has nothing on Wells or Len. That makes his role no less important to Maryland’s offensive formula. Faust is a dynamic playmaker who presents matchup problems for most any backcourt he faces. At 6-6, 175-pounds, the brings a diversified skill set and a range of valuable talents, as quick to handle the ball at the point as he is to spot up from deep or dive into the lane and finish on the low block.
The one knock on Faust: he’s commanding a large number of his team’s shots (25.2 percent, according to Kenpom.com), while not converting at the highest clip (his effective field goal percentage, which adjusts for the fact that a three-point shot is worth more than a two-pointer, is a mediocre 40.2 percent). Still, there’s no questioning this kid’s talent. He’s a constant threat to score from the wing, with a bright future ahead of him as he continues to develop.
Key Matchup: Alex Len vs. Alex Olah
The battle of Eastern European seven-footers – Olah is from Romania, while Len hails from Ukraine – will loom large in tonight’s matchup. Olah is struggling to find himself in Bill Carmody’s Princeton Offense. On Saturday, he played just nine minutes and finished with zero points on 0-for-1 shooting. Offensive improvement will come as a natural byproduct of more playing time and a greater understanding of court spacing and offensive strategy. For the purposes of this game, it’s Olah’s defense that could determine whether or not Len dominates the paint. Len holds obvious advantages in skill and athleticism – Olah’s best shot is to frustrate the Terrapins’ big man by getting physical in the paint, contesting shots and crashing the glass on both ends of the floor.
This is a huge mismatch, to be sure, but the Wildcats need to find ways to reign in Len. If Olah can’t get the job done, or finds himself in foul trouble, Northwestern has no realistic counter to match Len’s size. Olah doesn’t need to a huge night on the offensive end; he needs to frustrate Len in every manner possible. If he can do that, Maryland’s offensive balance won’t click, and the Terrapins will be forced to rely on a more perimeter-oriented attack.