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November 25, 2013

Friars present formidable test for Terps

After being lit up for 90 points in their own gym in front of the President of the United States, things really didn't have anywhere to go but up for Mark Turgeon and Maryland prior to flying down to St. Thomas to play three games in four days late last week.

"It's an opportunity for us to go down there and get better and that is really important for us with the way we're playing," Turgeon said last Tuesday.

Well today is day number four at the Paradise Jam for the Terps. So far, so good.

Following the Oregon State thrashing, the Terps rededicated themselves on the defensive end in practice and it has seemingly paid dividends. They surrendered only 109 combined points in wins over Marist and Northern Iowa - holding both teams under 40 percent shooting from the field - and face undefeated Providence at 10 p.m. Eastern time tonight in the tournament championship.

The Friars have come a long way in two-plus years under head coach Ed Cooley and represent a stiff test for the title-hopeful Terps. After three straight sub-.500 seasons, Cooley led the 19-15 Friars to the quarterfinals of the NIT last year. They return the majority of their key pieces, most notably last season's Big East scoring champ Bryce Cotton, who is averaging 17.5 points in six games this season.

This is the first year since 1990 that Providence has started its season with six straight wins. Since last February, the Friars are 15-4 and have all the makings of an NCAA Tournament team come March. In addition to senior guard Cotton, they boast senior big Kadeem Batts, junior forward LaDontae Henton and have added 6-9 sophomore Tyler Harris, an N.C. State transfer, into the mix.

In the slick-shooting Cotton and space-eating Batts, the Friars have the type of inside-outside scoring combination that gave the Terps fits against Oregon State. The Beavers' duo of Roberto Nelson and Devon Collier torched Maryland for 60 points, so tonight should be a suitable litmus test for what is supposed to be an improving defensive unit.

Unfortunately for the Terps, Cotton and Batts have more help than Nelson and Collier did. Henton, undersized but tough, is averaging 14.5 points and 8.2 boards per game and has range that extends beyond the arc. All Harris has done is put himself on track to be tournament MVP if Providence prevails, leading the Friars in scoring in their first two wins over Vanderbilt and La Salle. Last night, Harris has 22 points and nine rebounds and converted all nine of his free throw attempts against the Explorers.

Between Batts (6-10), Henton (6-6) and Harris (6-9), the Friars are big, physical and skilled across the front line. The trio combines for more than 20 boards per night. They get to the free throw line and convert once they get there: all three players have attempted at least 22 free throws and shoot at least 82 percent from the line. The Friars have the ability to get hot from deep, but prefer to penetrate and score at the rim a la Oregon State.

The Terps will need to get a lot more from Charles Mitchell and Shaquille Cleare against Providence than they did last night. The roommates combined for only three points and six rebounds against Northern Iowa. Mitchell played 13 minutes, easily the lowest amount he's earned this year in what has otherwise been a nice season for the undersized reserve.

Josh Fortune will likely start at the other guard spot tonight for Providence, though sophomore reserve Kris Dunn is a good bet to get the bulk of the playing time at the point. The Friars also bring seven-foot Wake Forest transfer Carson Desrosiers off the bench.

Last night's win was the probably the most complete effort of the season for a Maryland team that has struggled with personnel issues, slow starts and defense. Another one tonight would give Maryland their first non-local regular season tournament title since the 1990-91 ECAC Holiday Festival.


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