COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Defense, defense, defense.
Every press conference, without fail, Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon addresses his team’s all-around defensive effort, from its press; to its zone; to its transition defense; to its interior defense; to its perimeter defense. And after a rather sluggish start to 2015-16, the Terps (8-1) have made progress in each of those areas, culminating in Maryland’s 76-66 victory over UConn at Madison Square Garden Dec. 8.
With a distinct size advantage inside, UMD held Connecticut to 42 percent shooting, out-rebounded the Huskies 45-24, and surrendered a respectable 30 paint points (compared to 40 for Maryland). Better yet, the Terps gave up a total of one transition bucket, taking away up-tempo UConn’s primary offensive weapon.
“We’ve been doing a lot more toughness drills, but the light came on the other night [against Connecticut],” Turgeon said. “The guys just got more physical. We still missed some box outs … but we were much more physical. I think our post defense has gotten a lot better and come a long ways. Just our big guys working together defensively … they’re getting better.
“But probably where we came the furthest was our transition defense. That was probably the MVP of the game. We were committed to it, and did a great job of stopping the ball. It was a collective effort. Now I know our guys can do it, but they just have to do it every night. [UConn] was probably one of the better running teams we’ll be playing against, and our guys did a great job.”
Junior forward Robert Carter detailed Turgeon’s rough-and-tumble (literally) practice methods, in addition to the coach’s emphasis on cardio. Carter said Turgeon’s practices haven’t changed much the last couple years, but the players in general have picked up the pace of late.
“Oh, it’s a lot of diving on the floor, rolling the ball out, going after it,” Carter said. “Boxing out, taking charges – we get after it. It’s just being strong enough and finishing.
“And the conditioning has gotten better too, and that helps with [transition defense]. But it’s also just learning. Just learning where to be, who to pick up, things like that.”
As Turgeon stated, it was a collective defensive effort against Connecticut -- inside and out, frontcourt to backcourt. But the headman did make one key change that seemed to spark Maryland’s “D.”
Prior to the UConn bout, freshman center Diamond Stone had started six consecutive games. While the former McDonald’s All-American flashed his potential with a few rim-rattling dunks and Dwight Howardesque blocks, he was, at best, inconsistent -- especially defensively.
Thus, Turgeon opted to insert junior center Damonte Dodd, giving the veteran just his second start in nine outings. Dodd only played 16 minutes, and his stat line (three rebounds, three points) was hardly something to write home about. But Dodd proved to be an active rim protector, helping to hold Huskies’ 7-footer Amida Brimah to one basket.
“I think it’s pretty obvious Damonte is probably our best defensive post player,” said Turgeon, who acknowledged he prefers bringing offense (read: Diamond Stone) off the bench. “We just weren’t starting games well and we needed to try different things. Damonte is our best defensive guy, and we were struggling with it and had to change it. … Today, we’re comfortable where we are … we feel like we have our best defensive lineup on the floor to start the game.”
Dodd, for his part, didn’t have much of a reaction to the sudden starting nod. He said he couldn’t care less who’s on the floor at tip-time, so long as the team comes out with energy.
“My name was called and I was ready,” said Dodd, who mentioned his defense has developed from having to guard Rob Carter and Stone every day in practice. “I think later down the road, I’ll have to do more offensively. But right now I’ll do what helps the team win. It’s easy to block shocks and dunk the ball. Guys like Rob [Carter] and Jake [Layman] have the hard part; I’ve got the easy part (laughs).”
Dodd’s selfless, self-depreciating attitude has made him a perfect mentor for the youngster Stone. In fact, Turgeon offered up more praise for Dodd’s tutelage than his on-court performance against the Huskies.
Playing the “Crash” Davis role to Stone’s Nick LaLoosh (yes, folks, that’s a Bull Durham reference), the junior Dodd, along with others in Maryland’s frontcourt, has taken Stone under his wing.
“I think Damonte is doing a nice job with that; he’s really tried to talk to [Stone] and help him. And I think Robert is doing an incredible job and I think Ceko [Michal Cekovsky] in his own way is trying to help [Stone],” Turgeon said. “The whole team has done that. Diamond is the only young player we have, so we’re all trying to help him along. He doesn’t have another young kid around to lean on going through the same thing.
“But I think it’s been good for Diamond that he’s the only young kid, because we can give him a lot of attention. And he needs it … We have a lot of guys that go out of their way for him, and he’s embracing it more and more and understanding how important each possession is.”
Dodd said he’s constantly in Stone’s ear during practice, directing him on both ends. The junior mentioned that Stone is ahead of the curve offensively (for a freshman), so he mainly needs to pick up the pace on defense.
“I just tell Diamond every game, because he can get confused where to be on the court, I tell him, ‘If you mess up, just play hard. Play hard through your mistakes,’” Dodd said. “If you play hard you can’t really get mad at him, because he’s trying his best. So I tell him, ‘When I came in, I didn’t have the offensive game you have, but with defense it’s all about effort…. If you play hard on defense, you have a chance to make a lot of money.’”
By all accounts, Stone has heeded Dodd’s message. Even so, it’s a bit of an ego hit being yanked from the starting lineup, particularly when you’re a five-star recruit trying to make good on your national ranking.
But Turgeon said Stone took the “demotion” as a challenge, while Dodd insisted the freshman’s demeanor didn’t change a single iota.
“[Stone] enjoys challenges,” Turgeon said, “and now he’s being challenged a little bit.”
“But he’s still out there being goofy, having fun, playing his hardest” Dodd added. “That’s what he knows. He’s enjoying the [development] process.”
Carter said the young center is learning and working every day, making progress in all areas. But Carter made sure to mention how Stone’s physical abilities are readily apparent every time he takes the floor.
Against UConn, Stone recorded a 16-point, nine-rebound outburst, complete with offensive stuffs and defensive window washing. Carter, though, highlighted the big man’s soft-touch 15-footer over a UConn defender’s out-stretched arms.
“I was on the bench, and I looked over and said, ‘Watch him shoot it,’” Carter said. “And when he hit [the 15-foot jumper] I’m like, ‘He’s got it going. He’s feeling it now.’ I mean, it’s just about getting comfortable … [Stone] knows how to play the game.”
Stone’s next test will come against perhaps the least daunting team on Maryland’s schedule, UMES. Maryland Eastern Shore is sitting 1-8 with its lone victory over another team the Terps demolished, St. Francis (Pa.). UMD’s in-state brethren are coming off a 43-point loss at Michigan State and rank among the worst Division I squads in the nation in both offense (59 points per game on 38 percent shooting) and defense (77 points allowed per, 46 percent opponent shooting).
Senior guard Devin Martin, the squad’s most reliable performer, leads the Hawks at 14.4 points and 2.3 assists per game. Senior forward Dominique Elliott, meanwhile, chips in 11 points per and averages a team-high six rebounds. Beyond those two, UMES is lacking in the playmaking, shooting, athleticism, length and depth departments.
“[The UMES game is] about respecting our opponent, and coming out and trying to make our team better [Dec. 12],” Turgeon said. “I think our guys understand any team can beat anyone in college basketball. So we better be dialed in and ready to go.”
After the UMES game, Maryland takes on Princeton (the team that invented the Princeton Offense, if you didn’t know) in Baltimore and Marshall in College Park before entering Big Ten play. But due to the upcoming Christmas holiday, coupled with final exams, the Terps have a total of six practices between Dec. 14 and the Dec. 30 Penn State bout.
“There’s some things we have to get better at before Big Ten play starts, and not a lot of time to do it,” Turgeon said. “We really need these practices to get a lot better.”
Knowing Turgeon, the emphasis will start on the defensive end.