MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports

One year after missing the NCAA Tournament, the Maryland Terrapins return as the No. 8 seed of the South Region. And who else would they be playing but geographic neighbor West Virginia, which enters the tournament as the No. 9 seed in the South.

The teams will meet Thursday in Birmingham, Ala. at 12:15 p.m. with the winner likely to play Alabama, the top seed of the entire tournament, in the second round.

As of Sunday night, the Mountaineers (19-14 overall, 7-11 Big 12) are a two-point favorite over the Terps (21-12, 11-9 Big Ten).

There was some sniping on Sunday about WVU receiving an NCAA bid as it has one of the weakest records and conference records in the entire field. Of course, those doing the sniping have clearly missed every Big 12 Conference game this season, as the Big 12 is clearly the best conference in the country.

West Virginia started the season 0-5 in the Big 12 and, granted, things didn’t look promising, particularly if you talked to WVU fans, who are always ready to fire the head coach regardless of the sport or the circumstance. That’s all changed now and the noise has settled as the Mountaineers finished the Big 12 season 7-6, winning three of their final four regular-season games, including a win over No. 11 Kansas State, with the only loss coming by two points to Kansas, one of the four top seeds in the tournament.

Maryland has won 14 of its past 15 NCAA Tournament openers, yet West Virginia leads the all-time series with Maryland, 24-14, most recently winning in the 2015 NCAA Tournament, 69-59.

That remains a very unpleasant memory for Maryland fans, as West Virginia, under head coach Bob Huggins, is known for its sometimes overtly-physical style of play; and that was certainly the case on that day, as Terps guard Melo Trimble was thugged on nearly every possession by the Mountaineers and eventually left the game with a concussion.

That in itself was disturbing; that the officials let it go was disturbing as well. Yet what was even more disturbing is the way then-Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon failed to make an issue of it with officials, as, at the very least, a technical foul seemed necessary to make the officials and his own players even more aware of the situation.

But Turgeon did nothing (scoop!), and it was not something that was forgotten by Maryland players and boosters for the rest of the coach’s disappointing tenure in College Park.

This time around, WVU has a much better offense, averaging 76 points a game. Maryland, though, is known for its defense under head coach Kevin Willard and is allowing 63 points a game.

South Carolina transfer Erik Stevenson, the son of Fort Hill High School graduate Craig Stevenson and grandson of Snookie and the late, great George Stevenson, past president and dinner chairman of the Dapper Dan Club of Allegany County, community leader and one of the finest men you could imagine, leads the WVU offense in scoring with 15.5 points a game, which adds even more juice to the interest of a game that so many fans in this area care about to begin with.

Maryland and West Virginia both like to get to the free-throw line and both are streaky on offense.

West Virginia has played the nation’s No. 5 strength of schedule (it’s called the Big 12, dummies), while Maryland’s schedule is ranked No. 50.

Huggins and Willard are known for their teams’ hard defense and toughness, so it’s going to be a battle. Watch the match-up with Maryland center Julian Reese and WVU’s 6-10, 285-pound center Jimmy Bell Jr., and if you’re a Maryland fan, hope and pray there isn’t a Big Ten official anywhere in the vicinity.

Maryland was not projected to be in the NCAA Tournament, and if we’re going to be hard on WVU fans for being overly critical, frankly, there weren’t a lot of Terps fans who were in love with the hire of Kevin Willard. Many of those fans wanted Rick Pitino, which tells me they missed being on NCAA probation.

Willard, though, has been the perfect hire for Maryland. He brings an East Coast swag to an East Coast program that desperately missed being East Coast for the past 10 or 11 years. Willard and transfer guard Jahmir Young have brought much-needed energy to the Maryland program, as the Terps were picked to finish 10th or lower in the Big Ten, yet finished tied for fifth.

Of course, entering the final week of the regular season, the Terps were in line to finish second in the Big Ten. Two bad losses, though, to Ohio State and Penn State (see streaky offense) that suddenly became “not that bad” kind of losses knocked them down to the sixth seed of the conference tournament.

It should be something to see on Thursday. Certainly, it seems to be less than an ideal match-up from Maryland’s point of view, but based on the near-consensus bracketology of the past three weeks, it was a match-up that seemed destined to happen if both teams reached the NCAAs.

They both did and it’s here. We’ll likely talk more about it before Thursday.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT