Prior to conference play, Maryland men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon repeatedly harped on his team’s defense. Even though the Terps sat 11-1, were allowing 62 points per game and were holding teams to about 40 percent shooting, Turgeon pointed out lapses in rebounding; perimeter defense; rim protection; and zone defense.
A week later, however, the tune’s changed. The Terps are 2-0 in Big Ten play (13-1 overall), and it’s not because of their No. 3-rated field-goal percentage. Rather, it’s been their rejuvenated “D,” Maryland holding Penn State and Northwestern to 64 and 59 points, respectively. The Nittany Lions converted on only 43 percent of their shots (26.3 percent from 3), while the Wildcats shot just 37 percent from the field (10 percent from 3).
After the latter Jan. 2 affair, Turgeon remarked Maryland was playing its best defense all season.
Evidently Northwestern coach Chris Collins concurred.
“Maryland, on any given night, can play with anyone in the country. But their intensity and defense really stood out to me,” Collins said. “You know what they have offensively with their firepower. They can score from all five positions. They have tremendous guards … good wings and forwards … and really good bigs inside. They have no weaknesses offensively.
“But the level of defense they played against us was something I hadn’t seen on film -- or you couldn’t get an appreciation on film for it. They really did a great job of taking us out of a lot of the things we wanted to do. Their commitment to that end of the floor was very impressive…. I haven’t seen that kind of effort for them on that end of the floor.”
Northwestern finished a miserly 1-of-12 from range, a credit to UMD guards Melo Trimble and Rasheed Sulaimon and wing Jake Layman. All three actively harassed the Wildcats’ shooters, fighting through screens and working to disrupt shooting flow.
Meanwhile, interior presences Robert Carter and Diamond Stone have locked down the paint of late, the latter playing perhaps his most effective defense all season. Stone has had two blocks apiece the last two games, and Carter recorded a team-high three against Northwestern.
And starting center Damonte Dodd has been a mainstay defensively for most of the year, while backup big man Michal Cekovsky has flashed his rim-protection prowess as well.
During his Jan. 4 conference call, Turgeon said the Terps are rounding into “complete basketball players.” The head coach had seen what each individual could accomplish offensively, but the collective defensive results the past two games have resonated.
“As a head coach you always want more consistency, but I thought during the first half [against Northwester] we were as good as we could be defensively,” said Turgeon, who compared the effort to UMD’s earlier performance during the first 20 minutes of the UConn victory. “We didn’t play as well defensively in the second half, but we played well enough to maintain the lead. That was a step in the right direction, I thought.”
Before the Jan. 2 game in Evanston, Ill., Turgeon commented his team would have to give “extra effort” defensively since the Wildcats run an array of offensive sets. Thus, the Terps spent more time studying their opponent’s tendencies, while also upping the intensity during practice.
“We dialed in [defensively],” Turgeon said Jan. 4. “Offensively we haven’t played well the last few games. We haven’t made shots we normally don’t miss. But most games we prepare more defensively than we do offensively. … We were up for the challenge [against NU].”
Count Melo Trimble, who hasn’t always been the model of defensive consistency this year, as “up for the challenge.”
Last season, when the Terps hosted Northwestern in College Park, Md., Wildcats’ point guard Bryant McIntosh scored 21 points in a 68-67 NU loss. Even though Trimble dropped 27 in that game, he apparently took offense to surrendering three touchdowns.
During their rematch Jan. 2, McIntosh ended up scoring 17 points in another gutsy outing, but Turgeon was relatively pleased with his point guard’s defensive performance. Sure, Trimble’s offensive output garnered the headlines (24 points, eight assists), but he also blocked a shot and recorded two steals.
“Melo’s competing,” Turgeon said. “Sheed’s [Sulaimon] going to guard the best player, but sometimes [opponents] have two really good players like Northwestern, and Melo’s got to step up. But he continues to grow. He’s doing a pretty good job of playing with intensity and not fouling, which has been good.
“[Melo’s] taking on a challenge. He’s always had it in him, but we’re asking more of him this year, and he’s becoming a more complete player.”
The rest of the country has taken notice. Trimble entered 2015-16 as the preseason Big Ten Player of the Year, so expectations were high to begin with, but he’s actually exceeding them, per conference coaches.
Collins was in awe of Trimble after the point guard entered the “Melo Zone” during the second half Jan. 2. With Northwestern attempting a late charge, Trimble drained five ice-in-the-veins triples and began dishing out dimes right and left. Add in his defense, and Trimble almost single-handedly kept the Wildcats at bay.
Meanwhile, Rutgers’ headman Eddie Jordan, whose squad will face Trimble and the Terps Jan. 6 in College Park, couldn’t say enough about the sophomore All-American.
“His maturity is great man. I was hoping maybe he doesn’t want to finish the semester and goes pro before we play him,” Jordan joked. “He’s one of the top five point guards in the country, probably top three. He’d probably say No. 1, and I wouldn’t argue that.
“[Trimble] drives, he kicks, he defends, he runs the floor, he sets the offense, he makers clutch 3s, gets to the free throw line. He has the entire package for a point guard.”
But even when Trimble’s in rare form, he can’t carry the Terps alone. Turgeon noted that UMD’s been “lucky” so far, finding ways to survive despite subpar execution in certain areas (read: shooting the last two games). The coach knows he can’t expect a perfect outing every night, especially in Big Ten play, but for the team to reach it’s potential, “it’s about finding that consistency.”
“In games we haven’t played quite as well we’ve still been able to win. That’ll catch up with us at some point, but we just try to get better every day. I know that’s cliché, but that’s the truth,” Turgeon said. “We’re not sure how good we are yet. We continue to improve. We know when we’re dialed in and ready to play we can play with anybody.”
Turgeon was asked about sophomore wing Jared Nickens Jan. 4. His comments:
“[Nickens] has really improved defensively, rebounding, on the ball defense, off the ball defense, and he’s better off the dribble now. He’s just a better basketball player. He hasn’t shot the ball lately, but everybody on our team thinks it’s going in when he shoots it. He’s made a ton of big shots for us. I’m sure he’ll make a bunch more as his career goes on. He’s been a real pleasant surprise and been great for us his first year and a half.”
Rutgers’ Eddie Jordan was asked about Maryland center Diamond Stone’s offensive outburst of late. His comments:
“It’s like the American Dream man. The rich get richer (laughs). I think I even saw [Stone] step out and hit a 3 on film; hopefully we don’t have to guard him out there. But his size, his mobility -- hopefully we can keep him off the blocks and not have him dominate us on dunks and on post moves. Let’s gang up on him as much as we can.
“But they have so many other weapons, it’s going to be a challenge to stay in the game against them.”