Simply put, the numbers don’t lie.
Maryland, which boasted a nationally-touted top-15 defense as late as Jan. 17, after the Terps dismantled Michigan State, has fallen into a rather sizable rut the last two-plus weeks. Following a 71-55 loss at Iowa Feb. 8, UMD is now ranked 110th in the country in scoring defense.
“I believe in our defense – it’s a good defense,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said on his Feb. 9 conference call, reiterating a line he’s oft-repeated the last two weeks. “I believe in the way we teach it, coach it. Hopefully we can play better defensively down the stretch here.”
When the first variation of that line surfaced, Terps fans collectively nodded their heads. OK, they seemed to say, we’ll write off that 89-70 Jan. 22 loss at Indiana as an aberration, a night when the Hoosiers morphed into the 2013-14 Miami Heat.
And, fine, they said. We’ll ignore the fact Northwestern shot 54.2 percent from the floor Jan. 25. After all, the Terps did eke out that win in College Park, Md., thanks to Dez Wells' last-second putback.
But following the next game, well, Terps nation started to get concerned. There were definitely some issues that needed addressing after Ohio State dropped 80 on UMD Jan. 29, a 24-point rout where the Buckeyes shot 47 percent.
Yes, Maryland reverted to form by ramping up the effort against a lackluster Penn State squad Feb. 4, but the questions sprouted right back up again just four days later.
In perhaps the Terps’ most listless defensive performance this season, Maryland allowed Iowa to shoot 64.3 percent Feb. 8. Unlike the aforementioned IU bout, when the Hoosiers simply caught fire, the Terps were pushed around inside; failed to offer help-side defense; were late hedging on outside shooters; didn’t cut off drivers; and succumbed to backdoor cuts for easy layups.
Center Adam Woodbury (16 points) had his way with Maryland’s big men underneath, forward Aaron White (17 points) shredded the defense with an array of slices and cuts, and guard Peter Jok (15 points) broke the Terps down both off the dribble and from the outside (3-of-4 on 3-pointers).
Even pass-first point guard Mike Gesell was able to drive and dish with little contention, scoring four buckets on five attempts -- all inside the lane.
“I think teams are making shots on us. I thought Iowa was phenomenal. The first 10 minutes of the game I thought their offense was probably one of the best half-court offenses we’ve seen all year. They were terrific,” Turgeon said. “Are we making mistakes? Absolutely. Are we trying to get them corrected? Yes. I thought our defense in the second half, we changed our game-plan 10 minutes into that [Iowa] game, and I thought we guarded better.
“But teams are making shots on us…What’s happening now is if we make a mistake defensively, teams are making us pay. Sometimes you can make mistakes and teams don’t make you pay. But we’re just kind of in that cycle right now, but hopefully we’ll get out of it and defend better and teams will start missing some shots when we do make a mistake. You’re not going to be perfect defensively; you just try to do the best you can.”
Now, Turgeon’s Terps (19-5, 7-4 Big Ten) will have the unenviable task of shutting down those hot Hoosiers (17-7, 7-4 Big Ten) once again, this time for a 9 p.m. game Feb. 11 in College Park.
Naturally, the Jan. 22 meeting in Assembly Hall will be brought up more than once in the two days leading up to tip-off.
In case you needed a reminder:
Behind a ridiculously dialed in Yogi Ferrell, who drained more than one “are you kidding me?” triple, IU knocked down 15 of its 22 3-point attempts. That included a 7-of-8 performance from the point guard Ferrell, a 3-of-5 outing from freshman guard James Blackmon and a 3-of-3 night from forward Collin Hartman. All told, Indiana connected on 60 percent of its field goal attempts, 72 percent in the second half to pull away.
“Yogi Ferrell is playing at a high level, James Blackmon is terrific and they just have really good players and can spread you out. So hopefully we’ll be able to guard them a little bit better, be poised and get good shots on the them,” Turgeon said. “[But] it’s hard. Tom’s [Crean] done a nice job with [spreading opponents out]. Part of it is doing the best you can communicating [defensively], whether you’re switching or not switching, doing whatever it is you’re doing.
“And you’ve got to hope they miss some shots. They’re going to make most of them, but once they do get open you’ve got to hope they miss some. The last time, every time they got open they hit the bottom of the net. You have to be pretty good, but also pretty lucky when they can spread you out like that.”
Granted, Maryland’s offense was also clicking in Bloomington, which it certainly hasn’t been the last two road defeats at Ohio State (30 percent shooting, 56 points) and at Iowa (37 percent, 55 points).
If the Terps can shoot 51 percent from the floor and 50 percent from deep like during the Jan. 22 matchup, well, Turgeon and Co. would probably sign off in a heartbeat.
“Obviously Indiana played terrific that night, [but] I thought we played pretty well to be honest,” Turgeon said Feb. 9. “We shot the ball well in the first half and were down three at halftime. … But [the Hoosiers] have great guards that played great and shot the ball extremely well [Jan. 22]. Hopefully we can guard them a little bit better. That’s what it comes down to -- we can’t give up 89 points and expect to beat them.”
That’s for sure, but, as detailed above, that IU letdown was not an isolated incident. Aside from a few dominant spates of full-court pressure against Iowa and OSU, Maryland has not played with the same defensive intensity as it had prior to the New Year.
The Terps’ perimeter “D” has been inconsistent since that first Indiana debacle, to the point where UMD has dropped to 57th nationally in locking down the arc. More disconcerting, though, is the number of looks underneath the Terps have allowed, while team rebounding has fallen off considerably as well. Maryland’s top-15 unit has dropped all the way to No. 47 (39. 5 percent) in field goal percentage defense and is tied for 92nd in rebounding margin (plus-3.0).
Most recently, Iowa’s big men out-physicaled the likes of Damonte Dodd, Michal Cekovsky, Evan Smotrycz and Jake Layman to the tune of a 31-19 rebounding advantage.
The paint woes have been addressed time and again of late, Turgeon going as far as to say he “didn’t know what to do” at the 5 spot.
Apparently Crean believes UMD’s frontcourt still poses plenty of problems, however.
“Maryland’s got one of the better front lines, because they can do so many different things with it. They can play any of their big guys up front with Cekovsky, Graham and Dodd can do things, and they’ve got Smotrycz who they can move to the 5,” Crean said. “Every night we’re going to see a good front line – a very good front line. Whether it’s a big, strong play-at-the-rim front line or a versatile, out front front-line or a combination – that’s what Maryland gives you. … When you look at Damonte Dodd and what he’s capable of, and Jon Graham had a fantastic game against Penn State, those guys are getting a lot done at the basket.”
Graham did have a standout outing against PSU, dropping 16 points on the Nittany Lions. But the fact is, Maryland’s four big men have generated minimal production offensively all season. Of the Graham-Cekovsky-Dodd-Smotrycz quartet, no one is averaging more than 5.1 points per game, and both Cekovsky and Graham are under 3.0.
And that’s just the post players.
During the last four games, Maryland’s offense as a whole is averaging 10 points less than its season average of 71. The Terps have matched their season field-goal percentage (43.5) just once during that span, and twice have shot below 40 percent.
Point guard Melo Trimble suffered through a two-game field-goal-less rut before breaking out for 20 points against Iowa. Forward Jake Layman hasn’t scored more than 10 points since the first Indiana game. Wing Dez Wells can put up points, but his turnovers and erratic handles have caused the offense to stall at times.
Shooting guard Richaud Pack is known more for his defense than his ability to knock down jumpers (see: 1-of-8 against Iowa). Three-point specialist Jared Nickens hasn’t drained a trey in two games. And guard Dion Wiley has jacked up a few head scratchers that have forced Turgeon to limit his floor time.
“I just think we have to play better offensively,” Turgeon said. “A lot of it is we’re shooting it a little bit quick, especially on the road. We get a little excited and shoot it quick. We’ve got to become a little more efficient offensively than what we’ve been lately.
“We’re a work in progress. Everyone has to play better; we continue to try to get better. Second half [against Iowa], you know, maybe Iowa let down a little bit defensively up 23 at half, but I thought we were much more efficient offensively in the second half.”
The good news for the Terps, though, is the Hoosiers have been reeling on the road as well. Indiana is coming off a 70-67 victory in Bloomington against Michigan, but before that IU lost by 14 at Wisconsin; by 16 at Purdue; and by 12 at Ohio State. Overall, the Hoosiers are 3-6 away from Assembly Hall, including 2-4 in pure road (non-neutral site) games.
Crean is well aware of his team’s road woes, and is expecting the Terps to give the Hoosiers plenty of fits Feb. 11.
“I don’t think there’s any question Maryland will play fantastic and that’s what they’re capable of. It’s hard to go on the road in the ACC, but it’s hard to go on the road [in the Big Ten] and have success too,” Crean said. “But Maryland is definitely the same team we played, only a couple weeks better. They’ve got the same guys, they’ve got a healthy Dez Wells, they’re doing a good job moving the ball, and they’re a product of nights when they don’t shoot the ball as well then they’re not going to look as good. But we know what they’re capable of at home, we know how they play at home, and we know what Mark [Turgeon] does.”
As far as personnel is concerned, this is basically the same Indiana team Maryland faced during the first go-around, aside from the addition of forward Hanner Mosquera-Perea, who missed the initial bout with a knee injury. Though not always consistent, Mosquera-Perea is IU’s most experienced post player and adds a rim-protecting presence to the lineup. This year he’s averaging 6.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, while his 25 blocks are a team high, despite missing the last seven games.
“When you have Hanner, as he gets healthy, it changes things a little bit for us. Collin [Hartman] is going to be on the court there’s no doubt about that – he needs to keep getting better, and he is – but at the same time it allows us to do more with Hanner,” Crean said. “And he helps us get a little bit stronger down around the basket. It’s going to be crucial that he step in and play at a level that makes us better.”
Crean went on to discuss the strides James Blackmon and forward Troy Williams have made as the season has progressed. The sophomore Williams is averaging 13.3 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, while Blackmon is IU’s leading scorer at 16.3 per, to go along with 5.3 rebounds per.
Of course, the leader and bulwark of the squad continues to be Ferrell, who Crean said has been a mentor to Blackmon and Williams. Ferrell is putting up 16 points per game, shooting 44 percent from the floor (42.3 percent from deep), averaging almost five assists and snagging 3.3 rebounds.
For Indiana to pull off a regular season sweep of Maryland, Ferrell, along with his backcourt mates, will once again be asked to rise to the occasion.
“In this league you’re always coming back from something. You’ve either got to deal with success or you’ve got to be able to get rid of a loss and go above and beyond it the next night,” Crean said. “In this league there are really no ‘get-well’ games. Everything is about giving your very best every game, and bringing everything you have to it, because the league and teams are so tough. But we know Maryland is capable of beating anybody in this league, and in the country, on any given night.”
Turgeon addressed Iowa center Adam Woodbury’s poking Melo Trimble in the eye Feb. 9:
“The kid apologized. We moved on; I’m just thankful Melo is not hurt. It looked bad; his eye was pretty swollen but he didn’t have blurred vision and he was fine right after the game. That’s a positive for us.
“The league office has to handle it, but I think you have to be pretty talented to be at full speed and poke a guy in the eye. That’s just my opinion, but Melo’s fine, the kid apologized and we move on.”
Turgeon also commented on the passing of legendary North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith:
“He went to Kansas and went to high school in my hometown, Topeka. So obviously you think pretty highly of him. He’s a Jayhawk, and then you grow up and become a Jayhawk. From what I can remember at a young age watching his team’s play… he was big in my mentors’ lives. Roy Williams and Larry Brown were two guys that helped me get to where I am today.
“There’s so much we do today that Coach Smith did with his program. The weekly academic meetings with our assistant coaches. The thought for the day. The offensive emphasis for the day, the defensive emphasis for the day. The scripted practice. Our defensive philosophies. Our secondary break. There’s so much Coach Smith did, and he was way ahead of the game.
“So it felt like part of the family died. Even though I wasn’t close to coach Smith – I probably spoke to him four or five times – it felt like a piece of the basketball family passed away. I was just grateful I’ve been able to be apart of his family, and that’s what it’s really about.”
Terps In A Rut; Seeking Bounce Back Vs. IU
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