The 2023 NCAA Tournament’s first round tips off on Thursday at 12:15 p.m. ET with No. 8 seed Maryland (21-12) taking on No. 9 seed West Virginia (19-14) in the South Region in Birmingham, Alabama.
Like Maryland, West Virginia is back in the NCAA field after missing out last year. The Mountaineers may have gone only 7-11 in-conference, but the highly competitive Big 12 is considered by many to be the best conference in all of college hoops this year.
Here are a few things to pay attention to, as the winner of this game will presumably face the tourney’s top overall seed, Alabama, in the Round of 32 this weekend.
A tale of two coaches
West Virginia’s Hall of Fame head coach Bob Huggins, now the NCAA’s winningest active coach with the retirement of Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, has led two teams to the Final Four during his career. This is the Mountaineers’ 11th trip to the tournament since he returned to his alma mater in the 2007-08 season. Huggins has guided them to the 2010 Final Four and four additional Sweet 16 appearances.
Kevin Willard made a great first impression and has the Terrapins back in the Big Dance after a very successful — and somewhat surprising — initial season in College Park, where they went 16-1 at home, including an impressive 10-0 record against Big Ten Conference opponents. Willard’s Seton Hall teams made five March Madness appearances but only advanced out of the first round once.
Key players to watch
Maryland’s resurgence was led by electrifying senior point guard Jahmir Young, an Upper Marlboro native and product of the famed DeMatha Catholic program who transferred in after proving to be one of the country’s best players as a two-time First-Team All-Conference USA selection during his three years at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.
Young, who earned All-Big Ten second team honors while averaging 16.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.3 steals, is the engine that powers the Terps attack. In a three-game stretch against Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan, which featured his talented former high school teammate Hunter Dickinson, Young averaged 23.5 points. If he can cook like that in the tournament, Maryland can do some unexpected damage.
Meanwhile, 6-foot-8 guard Hakim Hart, the Terrapins top defender, averages 11.5 points and 4.2 rebounds per game. The Philadelphia native displayed his full arsenal in the Feb. 11 game against Penn State, where he connected on eight of his 10 shots while scoring 23 points, in addition to snagging five rebounds and dishing out four assists.
Donta Scott, another 6-foot-8 baller from Philadelphia, who had a career high 25 points against Saint Louis in November, also chips in with 11.5 points per game.
And the future of the program rests in the hands of gifted 6-foot-9 forward and Baltimore native Julian Reese.
A double-double machine, Reese put together an impressive body of work this year, including a monster performance against Minnesota on Feb. 22 where he scored 21 points while shooting 9-for-11 from the floor. He also ripped down 12 rebounds and blocked two shots that night against the Gophers.
West Virginia’s offense is paced by 6-foot-4 guard fifth-year senior Erik Stevenson.
Maryland’s defense better come equipped with a fire prevention plan because if he gets hot — like he did in scoring 31 points against Auburn, 34 against Oklahoma and 27 each against Texas Tech and Kansas State — he’ll burn the Terps’ hopes of a Cinderella run to the ground.
The Mountaineers aren’t a one-man show and have a well-rounded offensive attack that’s augmented by 6-foot-9 forward and Pittsburgh native Tre Mitchell, who averages 11.6 and 5.5 rebounds per game.
Kedrian Johnson, a 6-foot-3 guard out of Dallas who averages 11.2 points per game, is also a threat, as evidenced by the 23-point game he notched against Kansas State less than two weeks ago.
Emmitt Matthews, a 6-foot-7 forward from Tacoma, Washington, is also a threat to score the ball. He shoots 80.3% from the charity stripe and averaged 10.4 points per game this year.
Strength vs. strength
The Mountaineers run a fast-paced, up-tempo offense. Maryland boasts one of college basketball’s best defenses. Let’s see who comes away victorious — the team with the superior offense, or defense.
Huggins’ teams are always superbly coached. They’re consistently a tough, rugged squad of experienced veterans that can make life miserable for opposing teams in late March. Huggy Bear’s resume is impeccable, while Willard is trying to prove that he can lead a team to a Sweet 16, something he’s never done despite the previous success he had while coaching at Seton Hall.