No. 5 Ohio State Will Test Terps' Offense
COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- The Terps will get their first taste of their future conference when they travel to Columbus, Ohio, to take on Ohio State (6-0) at 7:00 p.m. in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Both teams are coming off their most dominant wins of the season as Maryland (5-2) topped Morgan State, 89-62, on Sunday, while the Buckeyes beat North Florida, 99-64, last Friday.
The Buckeyes and the Terps have faced somewhat similar issues this season. Both teams have been plagued by slow starts and both are still looking to replace their offensive leader from last season. Ohio State starts a lineup of three guards, senior point guard Aaron Craft (6-2, 195), junior guard Shannon Scott (6-1, 185), junior forward LaQuinton Ross (6-8, 220) and junior center Amir Williams (6-11, 250).
Ohio State has one of the best defensive backcourts in the country led by Craft and All-Big Ten defender Scott. Craft is one of the best, if not the best, on-ball defender in the nation, which means it could be a long night for Maryland guard Dez Wells, who will presumably handle the majority of the point guard duties on Wednesday.
"[Craft] is good defensively ... and it's not only Craft it's Scott too," head coach Mark Turgeon said. "Plus it's a road game, so there's a lot of variables that come in. ... They're going to test us. But we're much more prepared than we were a month ago."
Sophomore Conner Lipinski was tasked with replicating Craft's game to prepare Wells for Craft's stifling defense.
"[Craft is] a really good defender; that is what he's known for. My job was just to make Dez better, get in his face. That's what Aaron Craft will be doing, just guarding him really hard," Lipinski said. "One thing he does really well on defense is shooting the gaps, getting steals, so that's one thing I focused on this week."
Lipinski is right about one thing: Craft loves nothing more than causing turnovers. He already tops the Ohio State record books with 263 in his career, and he is averaging 2.5 steals per game this season.
Given the Terps' history of turnovers it is no surprise Turgeon is concerned about the Buckeyes' pressure.
"We haven't seen a defense like this and we haven't played in an environment like this, so it will be quite a test," Turgeon said. "[Craft] is good defensively, so it's a big concern, but our guys have gotten better and we've worked on it. We've got some pressure releases."
Even if Wells can handle Craft's on-ball pressure, the Buckeyes also have a skilled defender in junior Shannon Scott, who is right behind Craft with 2.16 steals per game. In the rare occurrence Craft or Scott gets beaten off the dribble, Ohio State's junior center, Williams, is there to protect the rim -- along with his 85.5-inch wingspan.
Williams emerged as a capable shot blocker this season with a team-best 12 blocks, and his aggressive play on defense is translating to offense as well. He is one of three Buckeyes averaging 11.3 points or more per game, and leads the team in field-goal percentage (67.6 percent) and rebounds (8.3 per game). Yet aside from Marquette, the Buckeyes have yet to face a quality opponent, so Williams will get his first true test against the Terps on Wednesday.
Senior wing Lenzelle Smith Jr. has not been quite as productive as expected this season. However, he is still one of the three Ohio State players averaging double digits, and is the team's top 3-point threat, shooting just under 50 percent from beyond the arc this season.
One of the biggest storylines for the Buckeyes this season has been the play of junior LaQuinton Ross.
Ohio State came into the season needing to replace its top offensive performer, De'Shaun Thomas, who averaged 19.8 point per game last season, and Ross was the obvious choice to fill his shoes. The junior hit his stride during the Buckeyes' NCAA Tournament run last year, averaging 17.7 points in OSU's final three games, including a buzzer-beating 3 against Arizona in the round of 16.
Whether it's the pressure of stepping in for Thomas, increasing his draft stock, or lack of confidence, Ross has fallen short of expectations so far this season. In his first five games , Ross hit only 10-of-44 from the field, including a three-game stretch where he went 2-for-20.
While Ross' shots aren't dropping he is also not cleaning up on the glass. He corralled 11 rebounds in the Buckeyes' season-opener against Morgan State, but only combined for 11 total boards over the next five games. To make matters worse, Ross is the Buckeyes' only true consistent perimeter threat. When he can't hit from deep, Ohio State's offense looks fairly one-dimensional.
However, Ross finally got off the schneid last Friday, scoring 17 points and collecting eight rebounds in the Buckeyes' rout of North Florida. Ross went 6-of-9 from the floor, including 4-of-7 from long-range, and also hauled in eight rebounds. So the question remains, is Ross back or did he just show up against an inferior opponent?
"Ross finally had a big game for them, made some shots, he hadn't been making shots," Turgeon said. "I think [Ohio State] is a lot better than their numbers show offensively... I think they've had guys not making shots that can make shots. I think they have eight guys capable of scoring in double figures every night. The one, two and three can all score and then they come off the bench with guys who can hit shots... You can't really guard one guy with them, you have to guard a system"
If Ross is indeed heating up, it does not necessarily equal trouble for the Terps. Ross might be Ohio State's most explosive player on offense, but he is its weakest on defense.
If Ross struggles, expect junior forward Sam Thompson to step in. The Buckeyes are at their best defensively with Thompson on the court (and considering Ross' scoring slump he hasn't taken much away from them offensively).
Having said all of that, the guard play will truly dictate whether or not Maryland gets out of Columbus with a win or a loss on Wednesday. Ohio State's success this season has been predicated on its ability to cause and score off of turnovers.
How the Terps perform against the Buckeyes' tenacious defense will be a true test of where the Terps are right now. Have they really gotten better since their season-opening loss to UConn or their 90-83 loss at home to Oregon State? They will certainly know after Wednesday night.
"I'm looking forward to seeing where we are against a big-time team in a big-time environment," Turgeon said. "I wouldn't say we have to have this game, but I think we have to play well ... to show we are much further along than last year."
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