Christmas is in the rearview mirror, and while the rest of College Park, Md., is quiet until mid-January, it’s back to work for the winter sports teams.
The Maryland men’s basketball team hasn’t taken the floor in more than a week, and has played just two games in the last 15 days, the holidays and final exams precluding Maryland from doing much of anything basketball related. In fact, the No. 4 Terps (10-1) have practiced a total of three times in the past 168 hours, which irked head coach Mark Turgeon a bit. Especially with his team on a roll following an 82-61 dismantling of Princeton Dec. 19.
“This break has been a little different. I’m not in love with the break. We haven’t had as many practices,” Turgeon admitted during his conference call Dec. 26. “The guys did come back, practiced well [Dec. 25] and practiced well [Dec. 26]. . . . But we took some time off, we gave them a break, gave us all a break. Hopefully we’ll find some kind of a rhythm by [Dec. 27 against Marshall]. So it’s been more about rest, and moving forward we’ll start to practice more and get ready for the league.”
The Terps have been in rhythm for most of 2015-16, effectively moving the ball around and garnering high-percentage looks. Thus, they rank third in the country at 53.5 percent shooting. Maryland has also been racking up the assists of late, recording 20 against Princeton and raising its season average to almost 16 per game.
Of course, the Terps won’t be taking on the Tigers, UMES, St. Francis (Pa.), Illinois State and Rider once Big Ten play ensues Dec. 30.
“It gets harder in conference. I’d like to think we’re going to share the ball and hopefully the assist-to-basket ratio will stay high,” Turgeon said. “I’m sure there will be some nights where it will be more difficult [to get assists], but every game is different. Hopefully the trend will continue throughout the year.
“But I still think we’re evolving offensively. We’ve been pretty simple offensively, but we’ve been efficient. We haven’t had to show a lot. I think we’ll become more complex as the year goes on.”
Turgeon didn’t want to reveal exactly what he meant by “more complex,” although he admitted he’d like Maryland to pick up the pace a bit. Typically, Turgeon’s teams are known for their up-and-down style, actively running in transition and pushing the pace. But this year’s squad, complete with an array of big men, has been less apt to run.
“You always want to play a little bit faster if you can,” Turgeon said. “When you get into league play, [the pace] doesn’t quite move as quickly. But we’ve practiced playing faster. … And as we continue to grow defensively in league play, that will give us a chance to run more in transition.
“But one thing we’re being, we’re being very efficient. That’s encouraging. We have to continue taking care of the ball; we’ve been up and down in that category. Some games we’re really good, and then we have an 18-20 [turnover game] in there. So I just want us to be efficient.”
“Efficiency” was the word of the day in regards to the offense. But Maryland’s headman rarely breaks down his defense in such simplistic terms. He’s been known to carry on for minutes at a time addressing one defensive concern or another. Which makes sense considering his team’s are known for their ruggedness, yet the Terps rank 154th in the country this year in field-goal-percentage defense.
So, naturally, when asked about the general state of the Terps’ efforts heading into the New Year, Turgeon expectedly hit on pretty much every aspect of a college basketball “D.” But he chose to concentrate his comments on Maryland’s interior defense first and foremost.
“Our post defense has to get better,” Turgeon said before painting broader strokes.
“Guarding the basketball is something you can only get better at. It’s really hard in today’s game, but it’s something we work on all the time. We’re much improved.
“Our team defense, relying on each other, is important. And just creating the right habits and doing it right every time is important. And then having confidence to fight through fatigue, fight through screens and other things that might happen out there -- it’s just a growing process.”
Turgeon did delve deeper into the post-defense dynamic. It’s been discussed extensively, individuals such as Damonte Dodd and Michal Cekovsky holding their own in the paint while freshman center Diamond Stone is still trying to find himself.
Even so, it’s not like Dodd and Cekovsky have been the second coming of Lamarcus Aldridge and Tim Duncan. Nor has Stone struggled to the point where he’s become a true liability. In fact, Stone has readily improved as the season’s moved along. Against Princeton, Stone had six rebounds and a block and held his counterpart to only two points.
“I think every game is different. Some games they play better defensively, some games they play better offensively,” Turgeon said. “But as a group they’re getting it done for us. I think most importantly, I want them to defend better, and I think we’re getting better at that. I think Ceko and Damonte give us that almost every night. So that’s what’s important. How much they play depends on how well they’re playing and circumstances.
“And Diamond has come a long way. He’s been paying attention, listening, watching film. He has the want-to; he wants to get better. But it’s a process. He’ll run into some guys in the league who can stretch him, guys that can shoot it, drive it. But he’s come a long way, and I’d like to think he’ll have even better growth in January, February and hopefully into March. But he’s coming.”
Another emerging forward, Ivan Bender, made a bid for more playing with a five-point, six-rebound outing against St. Francis. Bender hasn’t seen much floor time since, however, and though the 6-9 freshman is healthy, Turgeon doesn’t envision a much deeper rotation than he already has.
In other words, it’s up to Dodd, Cekovsky, Stone and power forward Robert Carter to get the job done.
“I don’t see [the rotation] changing,” Turgeon said. “Maybe certain games we’ll shorten the bench; I feel like we’ve done that in big games, shortening the bench in the second half. The first half, all of them getting in and playing well, and wearing the other team down, that’s important as well. But I think [the rotation] will stay the same.”
We’ll see if Turgeon can get Bender and a few others involved before Big Ten play begins right before the New Year. Dec. 27, the Terps will be taking on a struggling Marshall (4-8) squad that has four victories against mid-majors and 20-point losses against both high-majors the Herd have faced. They are coming off an 85-81 loss at home against Grand Canyon Dec. 22.
Marshall, which scores about 78 points a night, connects on just 43 percent of its shots and 29 percent of its 3-point attempts. The squad isn’t particularly great at defending either, allowing foes to connect at a 47-percent clip and 39 percent from range. The Herd struggle from the line (67 percent), on the boards (opponents out-rebound them by more than five a night), and turning the ball over (more than 14 per game).
That said, they did just get back sophomore point guard Jon Elmore (6-3), who has been limited to four games due to injury. Elmore isn’t a scorer, but he sees the floor well; has a 2.1 assist-to-turnover ratio; and is an active facilitator.
“They got their guard back, the starting point,” Turgeon said. “It gives them another shooter and he can space defense.”
Senior forward James Kelly (6-7) is Marshall’s No. 1 threat at 17.8 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. A slasher who can convert at the rim, Kelly shoots 54 percent from the field, although he’s only hitting on 19 percent (9-for-49) of his 3s. Another forward, junior Ryan Taylor (6-5), puts up 15 and six a night, and, like Kelly, is efficient from the field (56 percent).
Junior guard Stevie Browning (6-2) dishes out a team-high 4.1 assist per game, to go along with 5.3 rebounds per and 19 total steals. He also averages 11.6 points but shoots just 38.5 percent from the field (23 percent from distance). Junior two-guard Austin Loop (6-4) puts up 11 points per game and converts at a 43 percent rate, including a team-best 44 percent from deep.
“Marshall is a completely different team today than they were a month ago. They’re a much-improved team, they’re playing well, and they can really score the ball,” Turgeon said. “Tough matchups for us at the ‘4’ and the ‘5’ defensively … their big guys can really drive the ball and score it. It’s a team that’s gotten my attention, especially when they beat Wyoming the way they did. We’ll have to be dialed in and ready to play [Dec. 27].”