Zone Defense: Terps' Achilles' Heel?

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Jake Layman just shrugged. Why, Maryland’s senior wing was asked, did it take the talented Terps a game-and-a-half to figure out a basic 2-3 zone defense.

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Jake Layman just shrugged. Why, Maryland’s senior wing was asked, did it take the talented Terps a game-and-a-half to figure out a basic 2-3 zone defense.

“I don’t know,” said Layman after UMD overcame a 14-point second-half deficit to defeat Rider Nov. 20, 63-58. “Just bad shot selection, I guess.”

Yes, the No. 3-ranked Terrapins are 3-0, and, yes, they’ve gutted out a pair of wins against Georgetown Nov. 17 and the Broncs Nov. 20 thanks to second-half surges. But the Hoyas stymied the Terps for long stretches with an active, trapping zone, while Rider spent all 40 minutes in a packed-in 2-3, daring UMD to dial in from downtown. Maryland’s superior talent level ultimately won out in both bouts, but if the team keeps settling for contested 20-footers instead of attacking the rim, it’s eventually going to cost them.

“I think bad shot selection has hurt us,” Layman said. “Last game [against Georgetown] I think we started 0 for 9 from three, and tonight we were 0 for 6 from three. Our focus should now be, when the game starts off, to be more aggressive and get to the rim.”

On Nov. 20, the Terps were just 5-of-22 from beyond the arc against Rider, a cool 22.7-percent clip that could’ve been worse if guard Rasheed Sulaimon hadn't found his stroke. They did end up shooting 46 percent from the field, however, a testament to late-game improvements.

“I just think we’re not used to [zone],” said center Diamond Stone, who broke out with 12 points and five rebounds Nov. 20. “We’re used to seeing man. We took too many jump shots; that’s why people play zone -- to force you to take jump shots. But towards the end, you saw we started to get used to [the zone].”

Added Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon: “We weren’t good against the zone in practice and it carried over to [Nov. 20]. Their zone gave us fits. I take the blame for that, I didn’t have them ready to play. We tried to make some adjustments at halftime, and we finally made them when we were down 14.. . . . But I do think we’re a great zone offense.”

Maybe so. Maybe Turgeon is right, and the Terps really have figured this zone thing out. Witness the second half of the Rider affair:

At the 15:40 mark, with UMD down two touchdowns, Stone went right to the rim and muscled in a layup. A couple minutes later, the freshman big man corralled an offensive rebound and slammed home a putback. Stone then tallied back-to-back buckets in the paint after taking feeds from wing Jared Nickens, drawing UMD to within four.

Finally, with about six minutes left in the game, Terps’ point guard Melo Trimble converted an and-one to tie the game up, allowing Maryland to slowly pull away. Layman, Stone, Sulaimon and Trimble combined to score the next 15 points, all coming down low or from the foul line. UMD ended the game with 32 paint points, more than half their total.

“Diamond gave us a spark, and I was excited for him. He played really well and made some big plays for us,” Layman said. “But we just couldn’t get  the ball inside tonight. To beat a zone you have to get the ball in the middle, and we didn’t do it. We did a bad job getting the ball in the middle, and once we realized it, we started attacking more and getting to the rim.”

But the Terps are bound to see plenty more zone now that the tape’s out. The question is, Will they revert to form, jacking up jumpers 15 seconds into the shot clock? Or will they move the ball around, feed the post, send cutters through the lane, attack the rim and work inside-out?

“Our next practice I think you’re going to see a lot more focus on the zone so we’re more familiar with it,” Stone said. “A lot of high-lows, a lot more high-low action. Once we start throwing the ball in and playing inside-out, we’ll be more successful.”

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