Maryland basketball faces first tough test against Saint Louis

Maryland basketball faces first tough test against Saint Louis

Is Maryland basketball’s hot start for real, or the product of opening against a few teams the Terps should be handling? We’ll have a better idea after their trip to Uncasville, Conn., this weekend for the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic. They open their two-game trip against Saint Louis on Saturday at 1 pm on ESPNews.

It’s not necessarily a chance for a signature win, as that phrase is usually reserved for ranked opponents, but it would be a valuable one. St. Louis has perhaps its best team in years and is ranked No. 24 in CBSSports’ rankings. Maryland’s been dominant through three games under new coach Kevin Willardbut the Terps won’t get any national attention until they beat someone with a bigger name than Niagara, Western Carolina or Binghamton.

“I’m actually thrilled with the way we’re playing on the defensive end,” Willard said earlier this week in a radio interview. “We’ve just got to take better three-point shots. We are a very good three-point shooting team. We can shoot it, one through five. But we’re not, you know, we’re kind of just being a little bit quick-triggered on the offensive end.”

Maryland’s No. 1 focus defensively against SLU (3-0) will be 6-1 guard Yuri Collinsa preseason first-team all-Atlantic 10 selection.

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“I truly believe Yuri Collins is the best point guard in America,” Saint Louis coach Travis Ford said after beating Memphis earlier this week.

Javonte Perkinsa 6-6 senior wing who led the team in scoring two years ago before tearing his ACL, and 6-5 sophomore guard Gibson Jimerson (18.7 PPG) were second-team choices, and 6-9 center Francis Okoro, an Oregon transfer Okoro and former top-60 recruit, was a third-team choice. The Jahmir Young-Collins matchup will be fun to watch, while hakim hart will likely be matchup with Perkins. Julian Reese will get Okoro.

ESPN’s predictor has the game as a virtual draw, giving Maryland a 50.6 percent chance of winning. St. Louis is a 1 1/2-point favorite according to The Action Network. The winner will play Sunday against the other first-round game, Providence vs. Miami.

Here are three things to watch:

Can the defense stay stifling? Maryland has allowed 50.7 points per game so far, ranking 10th nationally, but the Billikens are on a different level than the teams they’ve played. They’re scoring 88 points per game, which ranks 35th-most nationally, on 19.7 assists per game, which ranks 22nd. KenPom ranks them No. 13 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. Maryland is forcing 14.7 turnovers per game, but Collins is hard to turn over, averaging a national-high 12 assists per game against just 2.3 turnovers per game.

While Collins is the headliner, Jimmerson, a Richmond native, is shooting 46.4 percent from three. And he’s doing it on high-volume shooting, tied for fifth nationally with 4.3 made threes per game. Donald Carey will likely start on him, but don’t be surprised to see a heavy dose of Ian Martinez to limit his looks — and perhaps spend time guarding Collins. Martinez is Maryland’s most fluid athlete and perhaps its best backcourt defender.

Where will the points come from? Maryland’s only making one of every four threes it takes. Willard has reiterated that he thinks it’s a good 3-point shooting team, but they’re not taking good shots. It’ll be hard to beat the Billikens with another brickfest from deep. The Terps have also been scoring nearly 20 points per game off turnovers, but as mentioned, those might not be as plentiful.

So the Terps likely will have to create offense from scratch, which means a heavy dose of Young, Reese and Donta Scott. And they should get plenty of shots up, as Saint Louis ranks last in the country with 3.3 steals per game. Maryland needs a rebound performance from Scott after his 5-15 showing last time out. The bench chipped in

Controlling the paint … St. Louis ranks 26th in the country in rebounds per game, while Maryland ranks 187th. That means they need to rebound collectively and it wouldn’t hurt to get a big game from sophomore center Reese, who’s averaging 15 points and 8.7 rebounds per game on a torrid 78.3 percent shooting. Foul trouble is always a concern for Reese, and they can’t afford to have him on the bench much. The good news for the small Terps: the Billikens regularly play four-guard lineups. Okoro is the only non-guard among their top six minute-players.

Bonus nuggets: Maryland and Saint Louis have only met once, a 74-66 Maryland victory in the 1994 NCAA Tournament, led by Joe Smith’s 29 points and 15 rebounds.

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