COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- The theme has been harped on time and again since the season began. Defense, defense, defense, defense. Capitalize it, bold it, put an exclamation mark behind it.
After starting the year 1-2 and surrendering 78 and 90 points in losses to Connecticut and Oregon State, respectively, Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon -- whose teams are known for rugged defense and rebounding -- has been adamant about the Terps' most irritating bugaboo after these first three games.
He said the team is guarding better in practice, he said the intensity and focus is present, but so far it hasn't translated when the lights and cameras come on.
"I can point at every guy. Every guy has to get better defensively," said Turgeon of a Maryland squad that allowed the Beavers to shoot 59.7 percent from the floor and the Huskies to drain 51.7 percent of their shots. "Not one guy is playing at a high level defensively right now. And they know it…
"Sometimes I'm sitting over there on the sideline and can't believe the way we're playing defensively. We just have to play better and hopefully this weekend we get better."
Turgeon sounded perplexed by his team's performances, although he's pretty sure he knows how to solve the problem. Sure, buzzwords like "effort" and "determination" will be tossed around, but there's a much more tangible answer he detailed at Tuesday's press conference.
"I've got to build depth," Turgeon said. "If we're going to be standing straight up on defense and not playing with more effort than that, then I've got to play more guys… we'll see if that helps us."
Those guys, specifically, are Damonte Dodd, Varun Ram and Jonathan Graham, in addition to Roddy Peters and Charles Mitchell, second stringers who are already seeing significant minutes. The forwards Dodd and Graham combined for four minutes during the loss to Oregon State, while the guard Ram played a negligible amount. Two games prior, against UConn, Ram saw the floor briefly while Graham and Dodd combined for four total minutes.
"I gave Damonte a chance, I gave not much of a chance to Jon Graham," Turgeon said. "But I think Varun is a guy that's got to get in there to give our guys some rest. He's one of our better defenders too."
Turgeon did admit the freshman Dodd probably isn't ready to play a ton of minutes against big-time competition. He said his athleticism is probably enough to contribute against a team like Catholic during the early-season exhibition, but against Oregon State … "Well, probably not," the coach said, noting Dodd's two quick fouls in Maryland's latest loss.
The benefit, though, of playing a Dodd (6-foot-9) or a Graham (6-8) is it adds another long frontcourt presence to help block shots and lock down the paint. During the press conference, Turgeon lamented the team's interior defense, noting how the Terps surrendered 24 layups against Oregon State ("I've never seen a stat like that on one of my teams," he said) and a dozen against Connecticut.
But simply throwing more big bodies into the lineup isn't necessarily going to help. Not if said big men don't move their feet, fail to box out and can't physically match up.
"I started a 6-7 center at Texas A&M and we made the NCAA tournament. So I think rim protection is a little overrated. Not everybody has it; we were lucky enough to have it with Alex [Len]," Turgeon said. "We just have to guard better. Damonte will eventually be that guy, Trayvon Reed will eventually be that guy. But Damonte isn't completely ready and Trayvon isn't here. So we just have to guard better; it's that simple."
The diminutive walk-on Ram is probably the closest to emulating what Turgeon wants defensively. He plays with an unbridled enthusiasm, which he showed off during the Catholic exhibition and the victory against Abilene Christian, two games where he received more than a cursory appearance. Right now, though, his main contributions are as a practice player who puts pressure on his teammates and brings plenty of energy. Ram recently said he turned up the heat on new point guard Dez Wells so he'd be ready for top-notch backcourts like UConn's.
"I try to be the best defender he'll see in a game," Ram said. "I really try to get under his skin and really pressure the ball, and get on him more than he'd see in a game.
I figure if I get on him hard, it will be easier for him … and I feel like he needs that."
But Ram, like Dodd and Graham, hasn't seen more than a minute or two in actual games. That, according to Turgeon, could be changing.
"I've got to figure out ways to get Damonte significant minutes in the first half, and Varun," Turgeon said.
Playing that duo, in addition to Graham, will allow Turgeon to spell the likes of Wells, Nick Faust, Shaq Cleare and others. The coach said he noticed how the team tired late against Oregon State, allowing the Beavers to pull away. Turgeon mentioned if he had fresher bodies rotating through, perhaps the Terps would have staged a comeback and avoided the upset.
But Charles Mitchell, who scored 10 points off the bench during the OSU game, said Maryland wasn't necessarily tired, but lacking in communication.
"We have to help our teammates [defensively]," Mitchell said. "If a guy scores 22 points, we have to [be there for] our teammates on help-side defense. It's got to be five guys playing defense, not just one guy."
Currently Mitchell and Peters are backups, but both could be ticketed for starting roles soon enough. Turgeon hinted that he's considering starting the freshman point guard in Maryland's next games in the Virgin Islands, while Mitchell has outperformed the current starting center Cleare.
Peters had his best game against Oregon State, slashing to the rim for 10 points while dishing out six assists. Mitchell has scored in double figures every game this year and seems to provide a spark whenever he takes the floor.
"I'm the type of player, I bring the energy. If we're down or up, I'm bringing that whole camaraderie and team chemistry back up," Mitchell said. "I'm comfortable in the role I'm playing. I don't really care if I'm starting or not. I'll [be the player] who comes off the bench and provides that spark, does the little things, helps the team any way I can. I've accepted that role."
Peters harbored similar sentiments. He said it doesn't make much of a difference if he's starting or not so long as he's making a contribution.
Of course, both need to play better on the defensive end. In fact, Turgeon's main reservation about starting Peters is that he hasn't excelled defensively, pointing out how he failed to retreat in transition against Oregon State, allowing the Beavers' Roberto Nelson to come wide open for 3.
"I've been watching film, I've been seeing it now. I saw a lot of things I could have done better [defensively]," Peters said. "Keeping pressure on my man, talking to my teammates, being where I need to be."
Mitchell, meanwhile, took a step back against Oregon State. Although he hit the offensive glass to the tune of seven boards, he had just one defensive rebound. The Beavers scored 48 points in the paint as Mitchell and Co. were unable to effectively front forward Devon Collier (29 points).
"Boxing out is a big thing. It goes back to effort and being willing to do it," Mitchell said. "But it's just team defense and not helping each other out and having each other's back. We just didn't bring the intensity."
That's surprising considering how well Maryland played in late October when they scrimmaged against Villanova. Turgeon was encouraged by the team's defensive effort that day and thought the Terps would ride the momentum into Brooklyn, N.Y., against Connecticut.
Didn't happen. Maryland was out-rebounded, out-shot and out-hustled. And the same scenario played out two games later against Oregon State.
"I think we were further along three weeks ago than the other night [against Oregon State]," Turgeon said. "Our Villanova scrimmage we guarded like crazy and for whatever reason we've take a step back."
Said Mitchell: "If we can play like that with no one in the gym, we should be able to play like that in front of 15,000 or 17,000 people. … We have to get back to playing Maryland defense."
Although it hasn't been evident thus far, Turgeon said the team is improving in practice. He noted how it's still mid-November and there's plenty of time for the team to buckle down.
And it starts with building depth.
"The bottom line is it's still six guys that we're playing," Turgeon said. "I keep saying I've got to build depth, and that's just [going to take] me not sleeping for two days and trying to figure it out. I got to have guts enough to build it and take the consequences."
Turgeon Looking to Build Depth
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