(Photo via ESPN)
Tonight will be awesome. We finally have a game that counts. The first time fans of the Big Blue Nation will watch a basketball game with real intensity since that fateful day last April. Maryland doesn’t figure to be a major player on the national scene come March, but that doesn’t make this game any less important. A win will kick-start the season for the Terps and surely give an immediate RPI-boost. For Kentucky, it will mean showing the country what they’re capable of. Beating the quality opponents they’re supposed to beat.
Here is the (projected) starting lineup for tonight’s Barclays Classic showdown.
PG: Ryan Harrow vs. Pe’Shon Howard
It’s been a long time coming for Ryan Harrow… and he might have to wait even longer. The point guard is listed as probable for tonight’s game after suffering from flu-like symptoms earlier in the week. It’s likely he plays, but may see a more limited role. Expect a lot of Julius Mays and even some Jarrod Polson. Calipari said he feels comfortable enough with Polson running the offense that he may see increased minutes outside of garbage time. Keep an eye on the hustle of Harrow — if he starts dogging it early, Calipari will have to go to the bench.
As a sophomore, Pe’Shon Howard suffered a pair of devastating injuries that took him out for the majority of the season. Expected to serve as the team’s starting point guard in 2011, Howard broke a bone in his left foot during the pre-season that took him out for eight weeks, missing nine games. He returned in December and played in 14 games before tearing his ACL, causing him to miss the remainder of the season. With such a small sample size from last season to go on, it’s hard to project where he might be. Expect Howard to be more in the mold of a typical “pass-first” point guard, who doesn’t look to shoot. He will be better served getting the ball into the hands of playmakers, like Dez Wells.
SG: Archie Goodwin vs. Nick Faust
Archie Goodwin comes in with plenty of pressure on his shoulders. Replacing the three-point shooting ability of Doron Lamb won’t be easy. And to be fair, that is not all he is being asked to do. Where Lamb was better from behind the arc, Goodwin has better slashing ability. He will be asked to drive the lane with viciousness more often than waiting in the wings. Expect to see a versatile game from Goodwin tonight as he tries to find his comfort zone. Whatever he is asked to do, Goodwin can do it.
The sophomore Nick Faust is a bundle of talent waiting to be unleashed. He averaged 27 minutes last season, but wasn’t an exceptional shooter over the course of his 32 games played. But by the end of the season, Faust had begun to find a groove, hitting 7-of-17 three-point shots and 21-of-41 shots from the field in his last four games. Nine of his 14 double-figure scoring games came in the last 11 games. Goodwin plays solid defense, and John Calipari has praised him for having a “Michael Kidd-Gilchrst-like motor.” Let’s see if Goodwin can contain Faust on the perimeter enough to stymie the Terrapins outside game.
W: Alex Poythress vs. Dez Wells
Alex Poythress is not at all an underrated player, but he seems to enter the Kentucky program in much the same way Michael Kidd-Gilchrist did in 2011: slightly under the radar in terms of who Wildcat fans are focusing their attention on. It’s all Nerlens Noel and his flat top right now, and it seems Poythress is quietly going about his business — just like MKG did last season with Anthony Davis getting the majority of attention. Don’t be surprised when Poythress breaks out his freakish athletic ability on this national stage. He is going to make plays this season that will just make you say, “Whoa.”
Maryland fans are already celebrating their first victory this season; getting Dez Wells eligible. The former Xavier Musketeer was cleared Wednesday by the NCAA after it was initially ruled he had to sit out a year following his transfer. Prosecutors in Cincinnati dropped charged against Wells of sexual assault, and his prejudicial expulsion from Xavier became a hot topic. Wells averaged nearly ten points and five rebounds per game in 26 minutes for Xavier. He was a major piece for the Musketeers, and will likely be the Terps key to success this season. If one player will beat the Cats, it is Wells.
F: Kyle Wiltjer vs. James Padgett
The only returning player from last season’s title run that played any significant minutes is now being forced to play a key role. Kyle Wiltjer will be asked to knock down shots as the team’s primary three-point shooter, and will be called upon to play much better defense than he did a season ago. “Raw” was the word used to describe Wiltjer last season, and that still may be the case. The depth behind Wiltjer is solid, so if he can’t get the job done, expect Calipari to have a short leash and insert Willie Cauley-Stein to at least stimulate the defense. Coach has acknowledged that this team will succeed with exceptional defense which creates points in transition. If Wiltjer continues to give up easy plays, the twin towers will see extended minutes.
The senior on the starting squad, James Padgett has never had a key role for the Terps in his three seasons, averaging under nine points and five rebounds per game in 23 minutes in 2011. Padgett is 6-foot-8, vastly undersized to 7-footer Cauley-Stein. If Padgett starts to get a little too frisky underneath on Wiltjer, he can easily be shut down. Padgett is not at all in the mold of Wiltjer where he can step out and take a jumper. He will play with his back to the basket the entire game.
C: Nerlens Noel vs. Alex Len
Nerlens Noel will have a prime time matchup with a real live division I big-man tonight. Noel has comparisons of Anthony Davis still floating around him, and now will be the first time the nation sees the new Wildcat center. For Noel, he can’t try to do too much. Play within himself and block shots like he knows how to do. Use his athleticism to overpower slower and less-agile Maryland defenders. If there is one guy that sets out to prove something tonight, it’s Noel.
Many of Maryland’s starters played in limited time last season, and that remains true with center Alex Len who averaged 21 minutes and just six points and five rebounds per game; not exactly blow-you-away stats for a player in the paint. The Terps played a guard-heavy roster last season, and didn’t have a better body to stick down low. So Len was their guy, and remains their guy. He is 7-foot-1, so if anything creates a problem it’ll be the height. Still, the talent gap between Noel and Len is astronomical.