It’s been a disturbing mini-trend these last two games, Maryland’s Mark Turgeon admitted. During his Jan. 26 Big Ten coaches conference call, a day after the Terps (18-3, 6-2 Big Ten) stole a 68-67 victory from Northwestern at the Xfinity Center, UMD’s head coach said while he’s proud his team “continues to figure out ways to win,” it has to pick up the pace defensively.
During a Jan. 22 Maryland 89-70 defeat at Indiana, the Hoosiers ended up shooting 60 percent from the field and 68 percent from 3-point range, including 82 percent from deep in the second half. Granted, IU’s Yogi Ferrell and Co. were dialed in from distance and probably would’ve torched any team that night, but Turgeon was still irked by some of the backdoor layups and uncontested drives the Terps’ allowed.
Three days later, Northwestern once again exposed UMD, converting numerous “bunnies” on backdoor cuts and easily-executed give-and-goes, drawing Turgeon’s ire once again. The Wildcats weren’t quite as potent as the Hoosiers, but NW’s 54 percent field goal percentage -- 70 percent during the first half – almost cost the Terps an Xfinity Center victory.
If not for Maryland senior wing Dez Wells’ last-second put-back off freshman point guard Melo Trimble’s long-range miss, well, the Terps would’ve been losers of two straight heading into Columbus, Ohio, Jan. 29 against a dangerous Ohio State squad.
“I think we’re at the point in the season where we’ve got to figure it out defensively,” Turgeon said Jan. 26. “I’ll meet individually with a lot of guys on their day off, and talk about where they are and why we aren’t ready to defend the way we need to defend to start games. …Then we’ll watch film [Jan . 27], the mistakes we made, the game plan we put in, the things we didn’t do – it could’ve cost us a home game.
“We have to learn from it. The good thing is it’s sometimes a lot easier to learn after a victory than after a loss. So our spirits should be high, we should be confident, and we should be willing to get better.”
The recent stretch has been rather uncharacteristic of Maryland for much of the 2014-15 campaign. UMD, even factoring in the IU and NW affairs, still ranks 14th nationally in 3-point defense (27.9 percent) and 20th in field-goal percentage defense (37.7 percent).
But the Terps aren’t expecting to simply revert to form. The players are well aware they can’t have long defensive letdowns as the Big Ten schedule moves along.
“That’s something that we need to work on as a team. We definitely have been struggling defensively and it is something we need to work on. We take a lot of pride in our defense but I think we have room to improve,” junior forward Jake Layman said. “Our intensity on our defense, it is not really a good thing to only bring in the last four minutes [against Northwester], but we locked up and our press helped us a lot forcing turnovers in the end.”
Yes, the Terps haven’t needed the full-court press too often this year, but it certainly did the trick against Northwestern. With Maryland down by nine at the 5:36 mark, and then 11 a minute-and-half later, Melo Trimble, Dez Wells, Richaud Pack and Layman delivered an invigorated, relentless end-to-end trap that resulted in four Wildcats turnovers (including a steal each by Layman and Trimble).
“[Maryland is] really active, they have good length. We wanted to keep spacing; I thought we had a couple turnovers,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. “You want to keep the ball out of the trapping areas which are the deep corners and then right across half court. I thought for the majority of the game we handled it pretty well, we got it up the floor. We had some lapses, I don’t know if we got a little tired. When we got the 10 second call that was on me I should have taken a timeout. It was just a second too late because we could have gotten a new clock with the rule. I put that one on me. The other ones we just got a little loose with the ball and they’re an athletic long team. The crowd was behind them and they were able to force a few turnovers there.”
A day later, Turgeon couldn’t say enough about the Wildcats. The Terps’ coach admitted his postgame handshake with Collins was “hard for me, because it felt like he had them ready, coached better than I did and they deserved to win. But we just gutted it out at home. “
The latter comment is something for the Terps to hang their hats on. Although it wasn’t exactly aesthetically pleasing, such a hard-fought victory could be viewed as a “character building” experience that can only help UMD down the stretch.
“[The NW game] just shows our character, our true character as a team. We stuck with it, we believed and we knew we could make it happen,” said Wells, who scored 17 points against Northwestern. “I kind of challenged my guys to elevate their games and they did, they responded. That’s the sign of a potentially great team.”
That’s true, according to the Terps’ headman, but he and his squad still aren’t satisfied with their play of late.
“We’re not playing our best basketball right now, it’s pretty obvious, but we’re figuring out ways to win,” Turgeon said. “Record wise, I think we’ve exceeded all our expectations. I think we’re also realizing we’re pretty good, but we have to play well on game night to win. There’s so much basketball left, and I think we can get a lot better, and we haven’t gotten better the last couple games. That was a wakeup call [Jan. 25].”
Besides the defensive woes, the Terps have to figure out how to generate more consistency out of the “5” spot. At times this year, Damonte Dodd has stepped up with a few nifty moves around the rim, while altering shots defensively, but the sophomore has slumped recently. Senior forward Jon Graham consistently brings grit defensively, but he’s had some lapses of late as well, and doesn’t add much on the offensive end.
With those two in a rut, freshman big man Michal Cekovsky, who flashed some rim-protecting potential early during the year, was reinserted into the starting lineup Jan. 25. But Cekovsky ended up playing just five minutes after missing a couple defensive assignments and failing to convert two easy underneath shots offensively.
“I don’t know what to do at the ‘5’ position. I’ve tried to give Ceko a chance, I’ve given everyone else a chance. Obviously [Cekovsky] missed a couple bunnies early, didn’t get a chance after that; it didn’t work out,” said Turgeon, who noted that he did not start Cekovsky just because his mother was in attendance for the first time this year. “So I don’t know what we’re going to do there. Obviously Evan [Smotrycz] played a lot of five for us [Jan 25], so I’ve just got to continue to work and figure out what we’re going to do. But I’ve got to get more out of the 5 position – defensively and rebounding.”
Turgeon went on to say that, following the Ohio State game Jan. 29, the Terps have almost a week-long break before hosting Penn State Feb. 4. He said the time off could help UMD since he senses the players are “mentally fatigued” and in need of a refresher.
But first, Maryland has to prepare for the 16-5 Buckeyes, which have won two in a row and just dismantled Indiana, 82-70. OSU is 14-1 in Columbus this year and 5-3 in the Big Ten.
It’s an intriguing matchup to say the least, as the Buckeyes feature yet another standout freshman point guard in D’Angelo Russell, much like the Wildcats with Bryant McIntosh and the Terps with Trimble. Trimble and McIntosh certainly had an epic battle, with the former dropping 27 points and the latter 21, and the Trimble-Russell showdown figures to be just as heated.
Russell is averaging a team-high 19.4 points per game, while Trimble is scoring a Terps-high 16.3.
“You’re looking at two very, very talented freshman playing big roles for our team,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said Jan. 26. “You look at the plays they’re making, both of them appear to have a great understanding and have really adjusted to the college game probably quicker than most guards do. I look forward to watching those two [Jan. 29].”
Yet another storyline heading into the upcoming bout is the emergence of OSU redshirt freshman Kam Williams, who has become a valuable rotational player during his second year in Columbus. Williams hasn’t started this year, but he’s averaging 7.3 points off the bench, shooting 50 percent from the field and 40 percent beyond the arc.
The name should ring a bell to Terps fans. Williams, after all, is a Baltimore, Md., native who starred at Mount St. Joseph but was never pursued in earnest by Turgeon and Co.
“Kam played really, really well [against Indiana]. I love the progress he’s making in terms of the adjustment he’s made and redshirting last year,” Matta said. “In hindsight it was a great thing for him. He has a great understanding what his role is on this basketball team. He’s come a long way this season defensively, and is a major part of what we’re doing in terms of scoring and scoring in bunches.”
Add in Russell, sophomore forward Marc Loving (11.3 points per game), defensive stopper Shannon Scott (43 steals, All-Big Ten Defensive team) and senior forward Sam Thompson (10.1 points per game), and the Buckeyes are a potent bunch. Moreover, they allow just 62 points per game and are putting up 80 a night, a scoring differential that ranks fourth best nationally.
For the Terps, it’s just another difficult road test in the Big Ten.
“My team, I got a bunch of good guys that really like each other and a bunch of good players,” Turgeon said. “For the most part they’ve been really coachable. I think our chemistry is really good, and they just really like each other. We’re not the most talented team in the country, not even close. But we have a good team, a good mix of veterans and young guys. And so far so good.
I’m kind of interested to see what we can do in the stretch run. It becomes a grind. League play gets very difficult, so we’ll see if we can grow, mature and get better.”
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