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December 3, 2013

Terps prep for huge test in Columbus

For a team with such well-documented point guard issues, the Terps sure seem to run into a lot of potent backcourts.

First it was UConn's Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright that gave Maryland fits in their season-opening loss in Brooklyn. Nine days later, Oregon State's Roberto Nelson went off for 31 as the Beavers shocked the Terps on their home floor.

Maryland's guards played frantic in those contests, turning the ball over at an egregious rate and enabling an epidemic of poor shot-taking decisions and unorganized offensive sets. The result was a 1-2 start.

On Wednesday, the Terps (5-2) will face their stiffest challenge yet in fifth-ranked Ohio State. Behind guards Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott, the Buckeyes' pressure defense is the second most efficient in the nation. Throw in 18,000 of Columbus' loudest - it is the Terps first true road game - and you have a situation that could spell disaster for Maryland.

"They definitely have some good pieces," said Evan Smotrycz, who was winless at Value City Arena in his two-year career at Michigan. "If we can handle the pressure their guards are going to put on our guards defensively then I think we'll have a good chance."

That pressure is the staple of the Ohio State (6-0) defensive system and in Craft, Thad Matta has the ideal enforcer. The pesky 6-foot-2 guard is relentless on defense and has already piled up 15 steals in the six Ohio State wins. Buckeyes opponents are averaging 16.5 turnovers per game.

However, the Terps have reason to hope that they've put their giveaway issues behind them. They regrouped in St. Thomas, holding the always-dangerous Bryce Cotton down enough to top Providence in the tournament final, committing only 11 turnovers against the Friars. Before that, they took care of Northern Iowa and only gave it away eight times. The dust from the Seth Allen injury has settled, and Mark Turgeon's guards have started to get comfortable.

"I think that has always been kind of big, especially at the start of the season with our turnover problems and stuff," Smotrycz said when asked about the importance of Maryland staying calm under fire. "As the season goes on I think we're getting better. It's going to be tough, but as long as we stay composed I think we'll be O.K."

With Varun Ram suddenly earning regular burn, the duty of scout team simulator has fallen to sophomore Conner Lipinski, who Turgeon implied has some big shoes to fill. The composure piece will be key for Maryland. Lipinski has emulated Craft early this week, but Craft isn't the only irritant the Terps will face on Wednesday night. Scott has 13 steals of his own in the Buckeyes six contests and Ohio State has gone a combined 35-4 at home the last two seasons.

"It's not only Craft, it is Scott," Turgeon said. "He gets in you. Plus, it's the first road game."

"We haven't seen a defense like this. We haven't played in an environment like this."

At the Paradise Jam, the Terps had the benefit of playing three games in four days. It showed against Morgan State on Friday night, as Maryland took care of business from the opening tip like they haven't done all season long against inferior opponents. While facing the UConn backcourt duo in the opener was essentially baptism by fire, the settled-in Terps are now a more formidable opponent.

"Everybody has to be able to run their sets and handle it the best they can," Turgeon said. "They're going to test us. But we knew that when the schedule came out. We're much more prepared today than we were a month ago. I'm looking forward to just kind of seeing where we are against a big-time team in a big-time environment."

Maryland will be a considerable underdog on Wednesday in Columbus and for good reason: the Buckeyes are legitimate national title contenders. They've made it to two straight Elite Eights and four straight Sweet 16s and most important, the Terps are coming into their house. But they're coming in playing the best basketball they've played all season.

"We let Connecticut slip away and that was a national stage game," said Charles Mitchell. "Of course we want to go out there and prove to people that we can play against big opponents and win those games."

And they're hopeful.

"It's definitely a place I'm familiar with," Smotrycz said of Columbus. "Hopefully we can do some celebrating after the game. I haven't had a chance to get a win there."


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