Blogger Spotlight: Testudo Times talks Maryland and the ACC

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Nobody’s want a piece of Maryland this season. The Terps are just 11-6, but feature the nation’s most efficient defense and one of the nation’s top players in forward Jordan Williams.

Maybe that’s why their close losses – to the likes of Top 25 mainstays Pitt, Illinois, Temple, BC, Duke and Villanova – make it seem like Maryland’s ready to run off a host of ACC wins. Tonight against Virginia Tech would be a good place to start. (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2)

So I chatted with Ben Broman, the man behind the Maryland blog Testudo Times, in this week’s Blogg Spotlight for his thoughts on the Terps, the ACC and blogging.

Q: Anyone just tuning into the college hoops season would look at Maryland’s 11-6 and shrug indifference. That must be infuriating given the Terps’ losses and that superb defense, right?

A: I don’t know if I’d say “infuriating.” It’s a little frustrating and disappointing, definitely. Maryland’s not nearly as bad as the record indicates. In fact, if they could hit free throws – a relatively small alteration – it’s not a stretch to say they’d be 14-2 or so right now, with a bunch of impressive wins. So yeah, it’s kind of annoying to think that there are people out there assuming this is a down year for Maryland.

Except for the fact that, well, it kind of is. The defense is great, don’t get me wrong, and the losses are far from damning – in fact, playing top 10 teams toe-to-toe in hostile environments is pretty impressive. But the flaws that caused those games to be lost have popped up again and again. They aren’t one-time occasions. It’s pretty easy to see what’s wrong with this team: they have no consistent perimeter scorer, experienced guard, or anyone capable of hitting free throws, and it’ll more than likely stay that way unless the NCAA unexpectedly introduces free agency. (Too late to call dibs on Jelan Kendrick?)

As long as those problems are around, no one really knows if Maryland is worth more than a shrug of indifference, and most Terrapin fans will agree. After all, it’s not like they only have close road losses to top 25 teams; the Terrapins lost to BC at home earlier in the year and probably should’ve beaten Temple in a virtual home game, too. They’ll probably prove that they’re worth more than a shrug of indifference by the end of the season, hopefully by running through ACC play with relative ease. But until that happens, I’m not upset by casual fans’ ignorance. Who knows? They might actually be unintentionally right.

Q: Same must apply to Jordan Williams. Guy’s been nothing short of a beast (18.1 points 12 rebounds a game) and playing a ton of minutes, but it’s all Jared Sullinger, JaJuan Johnson, Terrence Jones, etc, etc.

A: Maybe it’s just selective perception, but I’ve actually heard a solid amount of Jordan Williams talk by knowledgeable fans. If we’re talking solely casual fans, then yeah, he’s probably being overlooked. But that’s what happens when you can’t win big games on a national stage. I don’t think you can expect any great player to get a lot of talk if they’re on a bad team. Again, if Maryland could hit free throws – or, for that matter, if Jordan Williams could hit free throws – he’s probably seen as a first team All-American candidate.

It may also hurt that he’s not really exciting to watch. It might come as surprise to people that don’t watch him regularly that he’s kind of…awkward. He’s very strong, surprisingly agile and quick, and extremely savvy, but he doesn’t always look the part of a dominant college big man. That might be an impediment.

Either way, almost everyone that truly cares about the game considers him among the top 5 post players in the nation and perhaps the best player in the ACC. For now, that’s enough for me. Hopefully he’ll stick around one more year to reap the benefits of the hype machine that would almost surely surround him in 2011-12.

Q: Compare the difference to last year’s squad to this season’s. Ignore the records. Which would you prefer?

A: Last year’s, and it’s not particularly close. Jordan Williams has the potential to be an all-time great at Maryland, but he isn’t yet. Greivis Vasquez had not only reached that level by his senior year, he was extremely entertaining to watch. More importantly, last year’s team doesn’t have this year’s team’s fatal flaws: the lack of experience, the absence of a consistent perimeter scorer, and free throw shooting. After all, they were one Korie Lucious three-pointer away from being in the Sweet Sixteen (and potentially much farther) last season.

But if we’re playing preferences, let’s just put the sophomore version of Jordan Williams on last year’s team and call it a Final Four.

Q: Gary Williams recently said home-court advantage at Cameron Indoor Stadium was worth about eight points. What’s the Comcast Center worth? (This one will have a follow up)

A: Probably about four, but it depends on how full it is. It definitely gets overlooked by the people that are obsessed with Cameron, but it lacks the tradition and reputation that makes Cameron intimidating. Comcast is probably the second- or third-best homecourt advantage in the conference.

The thing about it is that while it’s an advantage, it’s not as big of one as Cole Field House was. Comcast is cavernous; those intimate places like Cameron, Cole, or even Cassel at VT seem like they’re so much louder when the fans really get riled up.

Q: Agreed completely on Cole Fieldhouse. The trend of replacing classic venues with bright and shiny new spots is never going to end, which is fine, I guess. Schools have to find ways to make money. But when Oregon replaces Mac Court – a dump, but a fabulous edge for the Ducks – with a $226 million arena, it seems like some of the soul is gone. Is Comcast ever going to feel the same as Cole did?

A: It’s all relative, so it’ll probably feel similarly eventually. But the combination of extreme intimacy and storied history isn’t easy to replicate, and it’s certainly not present in Comcast as it stands right now. It has some unique advantages, like the wall of students, the hypno-signs during free throws, and a cheesy nickname (the Comcastle!), but it’s still huge (in a bad way) and without much tradition.

As other sacred grounds are devalued, Comcast will rise up the ranks and will start to feel like “one of those special places” again. Speaking in absolute terms, though, Comcast will never reach Cole one-on-one.

Q: Here’s an easy question, but difficult to answer – Why are so many ACC teams so damn bad this year?

A: Most conferences have a team or two going through a rough patch, on a downswing, if you will. K-State and Oklahoma in the Big 12, Michigan and Indiana in the Big Ten, etc. It’s a temporary problem that should be fixed in a year or two. The problem with the ACC is that that’s half the conference.

Malcolm Delaney essentially is VT. Wake Forest wasn’t left with a full cupboard and is imploding under Bzdelik, who isn’t exactly John Wooden. UNC is still a year away from being back and was overhyped. N.C. State is still suffering under Sidney Lowe. And Maryland continues to blow chances to look impressive out of conference.

I wish there was some really cool, smart answer as to why this is, but there isn’t. Or if there is, I don’t know it. A lot of usually strong teams are bad this year, and that’s about all you can draw from it. The ACC will be back eventually, but probably not anytime soon.

Q: And the thing, is, we all know the ACC will be back given its rich hoops history. Where would you place the Terps in that history? Above N.C. State, below Duke?

A: It’s kind of hard to quantify where Maryland deserves to be, mostly because of their varied history. They’ve had a few stretches of national prominence under Lefty and Gary Williams, but they’ve also been nationally irrelevant for a long stretch, too. Heck, they didn’t even have a Final Four appearance until the past decade. I know there’s a lot of timing that goes into that (thanks, Duke, UNC, and UCLA) but it’s still strange to see a team with two Final Four appearances be the third-most storied team in the game’s most storied conference.

I think saying they’re in the second tier, right below Duke and UNC and fighting for space with N.C. State and Wake Forest, is pretty spot-on. And if I’m picking programs between N.C. State, Wake Forest, and Maryland, I’ll take Maryland. In that sense, yeah, they’re probably No. 3 in the conference in terms of history, right above N.C. State and right below Duke.

Q: And what about that 2002 Maryland team, which, in my opinion, always gets overlooked as one of the top teams of the past 15 years. Where do they rank in ACC lore?

A: That one’s pretty tough. If we’re talking strictly the past 15 years, just off the top of my head, I don’t know, around top 5ish? Number two or three or so? The fact that they didn’t win the ACC tournament hurts, but that 15-1 record in conference and 32-4 record overall is pretty amazing. And they did win a natty, after all.

I’ve never really been surprised that they’ve been overlooked, either. For one, ACC also happens to stand for All-Carolina Conference, so expecting any team out of Tobacco Road to get consistent props is probably expecting too much. And Indiana, the opponent in the national title game, was pretty weak that season. They got hot at the right time, but they were far from a power that year. It’s not like that should devalue what Maryland did – they beat UConn and a really good Kansas team on the way to the title game – but that final game wasn’t an all-time great. That hurts, too.

 Q: For those who don’t know who “Testudo” is, explain your blog’s name and how it ended up on SB Nation.

 A: Testudo is Maryland’s mascot. It’s Latin for “shell”, which makes sense. As for why I picked it: I’m exceedingly unwitty.

As for how we got on SBN, sometimes I still wonder. I had been doing some blogging odd-jobs over the past couple years before deciding to go full-time for Maryland in early 2008, which was my first true sporting love. I’ve been a Terrapin fan essentially since birth and there was a hole in the blogosphere where Maryland blogs were supposed to be, so I decided to fill it. I started blogging on a WordPress site for a few months before reaching out to Peter Bean and the guys at SBN. Looking back on it, I’m kind of surprised they agreed to let me aboard given my relatively unproven blogging chops and the extremely high-quality content elsewhere on the network. All worked out in the end, though, and the ride has been a blast.

Q: Best and worst part of running the blog? For those of us who rely on it for Maryland news, how much longer do you envision do it?

A: The worst part is either the time devotion or the occasional disgruntled reader/commenter. Like many other bloggers, the site isn’t my full-time job, so the time constraints can be rough. And there’s always that weird feeling when someone less than happy with whatever I wrote, be it a random fan or a former player, decides to let me know about it in less than pleasant terms. Maryland’s unwillingness to offer press credentials is annoying, too.

But it’s always worth it for the best part: while being as minimally cheesy as possible, it’s the odd occasion when someone gives an honest, heartfelt compliment and tells me how much they enjoy TT. I never expected that when I started, and I still kind of get goosebumps when it happens. The sense of community at the site is truly amazing, too. There are some regulars on TT that graduated in the 50s and 60s, talking Terps sporst with current students. That’s a pretty proud thing for me.

I don’t think there’s anything coming in the near future, as far as changes in the site go. I don’t plan far enough ahead to give a definitive asnwer on how long I’ll keep doing it, but I don’t see any reason coming in the near future to stop. I really like where the site is right now and don’t want to change too much. As long as I can keep doing what I’m doing now (and I don’t know why I wouldn’t be able to do so), I’ll keep blogging.

You can find Ben’s work at Testudo Times.

Want more? I’m also on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

Battle 4 Atlantis title proves Syracuse will be relevant this season

rad Horrigan/The Courant via AP
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Michael Gbinije scored 20 points and Trevor Cooney added 15 points and five assists as Syracuse left the Bahamas with a title, beating No. 25 Texas A&M 74-67 in the finals of the Battle 4 Atlantis.

I guess it’s time to start taking the Orange seriously.

There’s a lot to like about this group. Gbinije and Cooney are both fifth-year seniors that not only understand how to operate at the top of the 2-3 zone that Jim Boeheim runs, but they both have developed into versatile offensive weapons. Cooney was known as nothing more than a jump-shooter when he arrived up north, but he’s now averaging 3.5 assists on the season.

And Gbinije?

He has been one of the best players in the country through the first two weeks of the season. Through six games, he’s averaged 19.7 points, 4.2 assists, 3.0 boards and 2.8 steals while shooting 51.3 percent from beyond the arc.

Freshman Malachi Richardson, who had 16 points in the win over A&M, has scored double-figures in all six games this season while another freshman, Tyler Lydon, was against terrific on Friday, finishing with 13 points and eight boards. He’s now shooting 58.8 percent from beyond the arc this season.

And that’s where this team is going to do the majority of their damage this season.

Through six games, they’re shooting 41.1 percent from beyond the arc. In the three wins in the Bahamas, the Orange knocked were 34-for-73 from beyond the arc, a 46.5 percent clip. The question isn’t whether or not that rate can continue — four of the six players that saw action on Friday are dangerous three-point shooters while the other two, Tyler Roberson  and DaJuan Coleman, aren’t going to be shooting threes — but what happens on the nights where the threes aren’t going down.

There are going to be nights where they shoot 5-for-25 instead of 11-for-25. Will they have enough firepower then? Will their defense be good enough? Will guys like Roberson and Coleman be able to supply a scoring punch? Will Cooney, Gbinije and Richardson attack the paint instead of settling for jumpers?

Because at the very least, these three games in the Bahamas have proven that the Orange are going to be relevant this season, even in the loaded ACC. Whether that means they’re going to push for a top four finish or simply end the year as a tournament team remains to be seen, but this much is clear: Jim Boeheim has himself a squad Upstate.

No. 10 Gonzaga outlasts No. 18 UConn despite late offensive struggles

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No. 10 Gonzaga survived a furious rally from No. 18 UConn to win the third place game in the Battle 4 Atlantis, 73-70.

The Zags were up by as much as 21 points early in the second half, leading 48-27, but UConn slowly chipped away at the lead. Kyle Wiltjer led four players in double-figures with 17 points while Eric McClellan added 15 points, making a number of key plays in the second half when it looked like the Zags were in danger of giving away the lead.

As good as Gonzaga looked in the first 22 minutes of this game — and they looked really, really good — the second half exposed the concerns that many had with this group entering the season. Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., who both shot around 40 percent from beyond the arc and started for four years, graduated, meaning that Gonzaga’s point guard situation is, more or less, Josh Perkins.

Perkins was terrific in the second half of a loss to Texas A&M on Thursday. He played 17 foul-plagued minutes against UConn. When UConn’s defense ratcheted up during the second half, Gonzaga struggled finding a way to consistently get good shots on the offensive end. Part of that was due to ineffective point guard play and part of it was a result of not really having anyone on the offensive end that can create a look on their own. As skilled as Wiltjer is, his impact can be limited when pick-and-pop actions aren’t working and he’s getting doubled in the post.

Perkins is talented, but this is essentially his first season of college basketball; he was a medical redshirt last season after breaking his jaw last November. There are going to be ups-and-downs, and that’s problematic on a team where he is essentially the only point guard on the roster.

The good news?

Gonzaga beat a good UConn team on a day when their best players struggled in crunch-time. It was McClellan and Kyle Dranginis that made the big plays down the stretch, not the big names on the Gonzaga roster.