COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Maryland just had a block party in Lincoln, Neb., racking up a season-high 13 stuffs in a victory against Nebraska Feb. 3. Freshman center Diamond Stone, taking over for the foul-riddled Robert Carter, tallied eight in his own personal rim-protection clinic, while junior Damonte Dodd chipped in three of his own. Meanwhile, senior wing Jake Layman and sophomore guard Jared Nickens had one apiece, the Terps showing their wingspan superiority across the board.
“When [Maryland] has breakdowns,” said Matt Painter, head coach of Purdue, which is UMD’s next opponent, “three or four different guys can block shots and get back into plays.”
Yes, the Maryland length has given foes fits all season, the Terps ranking third in the Big Ten at 5.6 rejections per game.
“It makes my job a lot easier when you have a big guy in back and can just funnel your man to, and if you get beat he’ll clean it up,” said Terps’ guard Rasheed Sulaimon. “It’s a luxury to have and on this team we not only have Diamond, but three other guys that can do that, too. It hasn’t been a focus [blocked shots] … we’ve just been in the right positions.
“The team defense continues to grow and get better. Guys are starting to get in the right positions and trust each other more. When someone gets beat, the person is just reacting and trusting his teammate has his back. That’s helping. We have tremendous size and athleticism, and now that we’re rotating better, we’re getting more deflections, steals and blocks.”
That’s all well and good, but the UMD faithful shouldn’t expect an encore performance Feb. 6 in College Park. As Maryland (20-3, 9-2 Big Ten) head coach Mark Turgeon said Feb. 5, “[Purdue] is a different animal.”
No doubt about that. Height deprived the Boilermakers are not. Purdue (19-4, 7-3) doesn’t feature one starter under 6-feet-6, the Boilermakers boasting a long, fairly athletic squad that gets after it on the defensive end. They lock down the paint with a pair of 7-footers and can deny 3-point marksmen with a trio of length, hawking guards and wings.
“We’re big, but these guys are really big,” Turgeon said. “Offensively we’ll take the same approach, run our system, see what’s working, and coach by feel as the game goes along. But it’s a big team across the board.”
Not surprisingly, Purdue ranks among the top five teams in the Big Ten in almost every defensive category. They’re second in points allowed (62.6 per), second in scoring margin (plus-16.4), second in field-goal defense (38 percent), fourth in 3-point defense (31 percent), fifth in blocks (5.1 per) and first in rebounding margin (plus-12.3).
One way to beat the Boilermakers, though, is to run them to death. Purdue’s losses this year (see: twice to Iowa) have come against teams that pushed the pace and wore the Boilermakers out.
The Terps, however, aren’t exactly known for up-tempo attacks.
“I’m on my guys all the time about running. Hopefully at home we’ll have some more opportunities to get out and go,” Turgeon said. “We’d like to run more. It’s part of what we need to do. We need to get some more easy baskets. We talk about running every day with our guys.”
But even if Maryland isn’t running, Layman believes they still have the stuff to dismantle the Boilermakers’ stingy “D.”
“This game is a gift to our bigs, a chance to play guys their own size instead of chasing little guys like they have all year….We’re definitely going to go to our big guys early and try to get [Purdue] in foul trouble,” Layman said. “It’s all about attacking the rim and getting to the foul line. Sending three guys to the basket is going to be key [Feb. 6], getting [rebounds].”
Another factor working in Maryland’s favor: The Boilermakers’ defenders lack sticky fingers. They don’t force a ton of turnovers (12th in the Big Ten in steals), which should come as a relief to a Maryland squad that just gave the ball up 18 times Feb. 3.
“We were really uncharacteristic [against Nebraska],” Turgeon said. “The shot-clock goes off on one. One of our best players [Melo Trimble] had a really hard time dribbling; I don’t think I’ve seen that in two years. The [Huskers’] defense was aggressive, the crowd was into it. But the second half I thought we were terrific, only five turnovers.
“We’re not trying to turn it over. We had three straight games where we really kept them down. I thought the second half [against Nebraska] is more about where we’re at right now.”
Whether or not UMD can revert to the form displayed those last three games remains to be seen. But, more importantly, the Terps will need to be dialed in defensively, because the Boilermakers are none too shabby on offense.
In fact, they’re actually averaging more points per game than Maryland (79 to 76.5), Purdue ranking third in the Big Ten in scoring. They’re sixth in field-goal percentage (46.6), sixth from range (36.1 percent), second in assists (18 per) and fifth in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.4). But where the Boilermakers truly excel is on the offensive glass, where they’re first in the conference at 12.5 per game, and from the charity stripe, where they’re second at 75 percent.
“They’re a much better team than they were last year,” Turgeon said. “They have more shooters … and they’re just big and tough to guard.”
That said, the Boilermakers aren’t the best ball-handlers around. They’re prone to turnovers and lack a dynamic passer/dribbler up top.
Which means they’re ripe for a little pressure defense, perhaps of the full-court variety. But Maryland hasn’t used the press much since conference play began, a direct result of depleted backcourt depth.
“It’s a combination of depth [concerns] and our half-court defense has been amazing the last three games. And we’ve rebounded a little better the last three games, which has made it even better,” Turgeon said. “But if the situation’s right we’ll [press]. You’re concerned about matchups when you press … that’s always a concern. There are a lot of factors.”
If you needed a reminder, Purdue boasts a boatload of long-limbs -- starting with the point guard, Vince Edwards, who is 6-8. Edwards averages 11 points and five rebounds, to go along with a team-high three assists per game. He’s also converting 85 percent of his free throws, and, given his size advantage over his point-guard counterparts, it’s no shock he’s canning 40.6 percent of his 3s. Edwards will turn the ball over if pressured, however.
Joining Edwards in the backcourt is the 6-6 Rapheal Davis, who is averaging nine points and 3.7 rebounds per. Davis is shooting 43 percent from the field and a scintillating 38 percent from distance, ranking among the Big Ten’s best. But Davis’ calling card is defense. A wired, energetic, intense presence, he won conference defensive player of the year in 2015-16.
The Boilermakers will actually rotate through four more guards, who all average 14 minutes or more per game. P.J. Thompson (5-10) see the most time subbing in for Edwards, and has a 6 and 2 line -- to go along with three dimes per. Thompson is also shooting 40 percent from 3, tied for second-best on the team. (Thompson doesn't have enough attempts to qualify for the conference leaders).
Meanwhile, Kendall Stephens (7.2 points per), Dakota Mathias (five points per) and Johnny Hill (5.5 points per on 58 percent shooting) all see significant floor time.
Purdue doesn’t really have a true wing, but Caleb Swanigan (6-9) can step out every once in awhile (31 percent from range). The freshman is averaging nine points on 43 percent from the field, but, like Rapheal Davis, he does his best work on “D.” Swanigan grabs a Big-Ten high nine rebounds per and will alter his share of shots as well. The main issue with Swanigan is he’s turnover prone, coughing the ball up almost three times per game.
“Swanigan is a load, that’s who [Robert Carter] will guard,” said Turgeon of Carter, who was 0-of-3 from the field against Nebraska and had just four points and four boards in 17 minutes due to foul issues. “I’m hoping Robert can stay out of foul trouble, that’ll be big for us.]. [I’d also like Carter to be] more decisive on offense; I just want them to be more efficient. When he’s efficient, we’re really good. But it’s hard.”
Now, about those 7-footers . . .
A.J. Hammons (7-0) is not only Purdue’s most effective player, he’s one of the best in the conference. He gets it done on both ends of the floor, averaging 14.5 points per game (14th in the Big Ten) on 60 percent shooting and 72 percent from the line (not bad for a 7-footer). Naturally, Hammons owns the glass, racking up 7.9 boards per (fourth in the Big Ten), while his 2.5 blocks a night is second only to Iowa’s Jarrod Uthoff.
Hammons’ partner in crime is the 7-2 Isaac Haas, who will actually rotate with his fellow 7-footer so the two are not always on the floor at the same time. In about 15 minutes a game, Haas is averaging 10 points (57 percent shooting) and 4.2 rebounds, to go along with a block a night.
“Hammons and Haas, they’re just big men, so that’ll be different just trying to guard them. And then Raphael Davis at the ‘2’, Edwards …”Turgeon said. “I thought defensively at Ohio State, Ceko [Michal Cekovsky] and Damonte really helped us, gave us a big lift, and it kind of carried over to Nebraska. This is a different animal. Those teams didn’t post up as much, and obviously Nebraska didn’t post up hardly at all. [Purdue] is all about getting the ball in the paint. It’s a different kind of challenge.
“It’s good matchups across the board. There’s not a lot of games in the league with good matchups … But this game everyone matches up pretty well.”