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No. 15 Johns Hopkins at No. 4 Maryland
For the Blue Jays (6-4), the NCAA tournament starts now. They must run the table with wins over the Terps, Navy, Loyola and Army to have a realistic shot for an at-large NCAA bid. One bite at a time. Splitting with Maryland and Loyola won't guarantee a bid. Hopkins has beaten just one team with a winning record (Towson) and rates low in the Rating Percentage Index and strength of schedule. Losses to Princeton, Albany, Syracuse and North Carolina will hurt on Selection Sunday.
Meanwhile, the Terps marched their way into April with only one loss but don't look as invincible as they did in February. The opportunity to end Hopkins' season early comes around only once every 40 years.
How will Hopkins score? The Terps' defense can protect the house. Defenseman Michael Ehrhardt and long-stick midfielder Jesse Bernhardt are as good as any at their position. Not many teams have a No. 2 defender as proven as Goran Murray. Ehrhardt or Murray will cover Wells Stanwick (Boys' Latin), freeing up the other to bump up top. Coach John Tillman has a stable of tough short-stick defensive midfielders led by Landon Carr.
I expect to see Hopkins midfielder Rob Guida, who has been out with an undisclosed injury since February. It's now or never for him. Maybe the Blue Jays will embrace the challenge, avoid turnovers and be more judicious with shot selection. Maybe they will dodge to better shooting angles. Maybe Maryland will commit a lot of penalties. Maybe Hopkins will play with aggression and poise when a game is on the line. That's a lot of maybes.
Faceoffs should be a battle royal between Maryland's Charlie Raffa and the Jays' Mike Poppleton. What sets the Terps apart is the way they fly around the field during loose balls. They have earned seven extra offensive possessions per game with that hustle.
Maryland's first offensive unit is scary and productive — all six players are contributing: Kevin Cooper (17,14), John Haus (14,9), Mike Chanenchuk (13,9), Owen Blye (13,7), Jay Carlson (16,2) and Jake Bernhardt (13,4). After that, there's a major drop-off. When the weather heats up and Maryland has to win two games in three days on Championship Weekend, how much gas will be in the tank? Are the subs ready?
The Blue Jays' defense has been a major disappointment considering the talent and experience of their starting six. Too often, they don't operate from the same manual. Cleaning up isolated errors in assignment and technique is mandatory for survival against a Terps offense that shoots a sizzling 36 percent.
Hopkins still has a heartbeat, but it's faint. Expect its best effort. Nothing would make Maryland happier than ending the Blue Jays' streak of NCAA tournament appearances dating to 1972, the second year of the tourney.