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Taking an in-depth look at fifth-ranked Maryland women's basketball

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After 20 games and halfway through their first Big Ten season, Maryland is 18-2 overall and ranked fifth in the country. At 9-0, they sit atop the B1G as the lone undefeated team. Here's my opinion of how the Terps have performed.

Courtesy Kai Buck Dambach

Although the regular season is about two thirds done, the Maryland women's basketball team has just reached the midpoint of the Big Ten conference schedule. Keep in mind that the 2014-2015 season is not merely transitional - 1 BTC (Year 1 Big Ten Conference) for Maryland but it's also transformational - 1 AAT (After Alyssa Thomas). I thought it might be an appropriate time to take stock. We will look at how the team has fared against their Big Ten foes and how they have weathered the transition to playing without Thomas.

Maryland and the B1G

Here's a list of some statistical categories in which the Terrapins lead the Big Ten halfway through their first Conference schedule:

Overall Record: 18-2
Conference Record: 9-0
Points scored per game: 83.2
Field goal percentage: 48.7
Free throw percentage 75.6
Scoring margin: +23.6
Rebounding margin: +12.4
Offensive rebounds: 16.1
Offensive points per possession: 1.11
Effective field goal percentage: 52.5
Points per weighted shot: 1.12
Rebound percentage: 58.5

Here is the list of Maryland players who have won a Big Ten Player of the Week Award:

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With the season 11 weeks old, one would not think, given Maryland's position in the conference, the Terps would be 0-11 in this particular statistic.

Then again, perhaps this defines a team. Eleven weeks into the season, the team with the best overall record, the only undefeated team in conference play, the most prolific and efficient scoring team in the conference has managed to accomplish this without once having a player (or needing to have a player play well enough) earn Player of the Week honors.

For full disclosure, the conference also produces a weekly three player "Honor Roll" and this list has six times included a Terp. Shatori Walker-Kimbrough has three honor roll mentions, Brionna Jones two and Lexie Brown one. So they have been close.

In the preseason polls, both the Big Ten coaches and media chose Maryland as the favorite to win the conference. Halfway through the conference season, the Terrapins have cemented that position.

Maryland struggled a bit with their identity in the season's first weeks. This is understandable. While they were not trying to integrate a spate of new players, even the upperclassmen had to adjust to playing without Alyssa Thomas.

For much of her career, and certainly for the last two seasons, Thomas was Maryland's focal point. This is not intended to diminish the play and contributions of her teammates, but is meant as a simple declarative statement of my observation. And not just for the big plays. Offense. Defense. Rebounding. Alyssa Thomas was the center around whom the rest of the team rotated.

Twenty games into the season, it would be hard to argue that Maryland has that same sort of axis. For confirmation, look at the list of Terrapins who have won Big Ten Player of the Week Awards.

Instead of having a single focal point, the Terps have coalesced into one of the most balanced teams in the country. They have stars, but no superstar. On any given night, any one of these players could be a key to a Maryland win.

You might start making a case for the only senior on the Terps' roster, Laurin Mincy. She is Maryland's second leading scorer but appears to be both the emotional leader and the calming influence. When games start getting tight, it's Mincy, more often than not, who makes the crucial drive.

Or it could be Shatori Walker-Kimbrough. Maryland's leading scorer - albeit by only two-tenths of a point - and the Terrapins' most efficient player. Although her efficiency rate (not a stat I explained in the introductory course) is only 15th in the Big Ten, at 14.8 it is 10 points above the national average.

Or it could be Lexie Brown. The sophomore gets the Terps' offense started. She leads the team in both assists and steals. Brown also sports a respectable 1.8 assist to turnover ratio and is the Terps' third leading scorer.

Or there's the fourth leading scorer, Brionna Jones. Jones has not quite turned into a double-double machine, but the sophomore has seven on the season and five have come in the last seven games. She leads the Terps in rebounds and blocked shots and has reached double figures in scoring in 16-of-20 games, including seven in a row and 11 of the last 12 making nearly 58 percent of her shots - also a team best.

Or it could be Chloe Pavlech coming off the bench to hit a pair of big three pointers as she did against Purdue that got Maryland going. Or Brene Moseley lighting up Minnesota for 15 points in literally the next game on the schedule. Or freshman Kristen Confroy with eight points, four rebounds, a steal and an assist in 16 quality minutes against Michigan State. Or the hustle of Tierney Pfirman who pulls down more than four rebounds per game while averaging under 15 minutes of playing time.

As an opponent, you might stop one but you're not going to stop them all. Since the Terps have figured that out, they've become a very dangerous team.

A brief look ahead

The Terps will open the second half of their first Big Ten campaign hosting the second place Iowa Hawkeyes in their only regular season meeting. The Hawkeyes are currently fifth in RPI and one game behind Maryland in the standings. While the Big Ten is a deep and balanced league with seven teams in the top RPI top 50 and two more sitting at 51 and 52, by rank, Iowa should be the Terrapins' stiffest challenge.

After facing Iowa, the eight remaining games will be split evenly between home and road contests. The Terps will travel to Penn State, Michigan State and Wisconsin before closing the regular season at Northwestern. At home, Maryland faces rematches with Nebraska, Rutgers, Penn State and Indiana.

An argument in favor of statistics

As in all sports, the bottom line statistical measurement in basketball is simple and elemental - how many games have you won and how many games have you lost. In this most important statistic, the 2014-15 Maryland women's basketball team excels. There are 14 teams in the Big Ten. Only Maryland is perfect in conference play through nine games. There are 349 teams that play NCAA Division 1 basketball. Maryland is one of only 17 or so of those teams to have won at least 90 percent of their first 20 games.

In some respects, we need look no further than that. But what fun would that be? We're fans. We like to play the "what if" game. We like to complain about a coach's player rotation or lack of in-game adjustments. We like to squabble. And what better way to fuel those discussions than to roll out some statistics?

While there is usually a significant correlation between statistical measurements and wins and losses, sometimes teams "defy the odds" and win more than statistical analysis indicates they should. (The inverse is also true but our winning obsessed society typically disregards this aspect of random deviation.)

Just as a scientific theory is imperfect, so are statistics. A theory is a set principles that govern or describe an observed body of facts. When new facts are observed that belie an existing theory, the theory must be modified, supplemented, or discarded. When Albert Einstein developed his general and special theories of relativity, the so-called "laws" of classical Newtonian physics needed modification.

So, statistics aren't perfect. They never will be because random elements exist. Still, they are useful tools and we use the ones we have until a better measurement comes along. We use them and combine them to see if (1) they provide a rational explanation for what we have observed in the past and (2) to see how accurately they help us predict something we might observe in the future.

GRADING THE OFFENSE: A-

First and foremost, Maryland scores points. That's a good thing. They score points efficiently. And that may be a better thing. Because, as one old saying goes, there's more than one way to skin a cat.

Most of us are familiar with an old sports adage that defense wins games or defense wins championships. I won't go into it deeply, but those nasty old statistics show that offense wins games and championships, too. Here's a small example: Of the top 12 teams in points per game (ppg) and points per possession (ppp) last year, three - Notre Dame (2/2), UConn (10/1) and Maryland (12/3) - were in the Final Four. Of that group, only Connecticut was in the top 12 in points allowed and points allowed per possession.

After 20 games this season, Maryland is sixth in the country at 83.2 ppg. Here are the records of the top 12 in ppg: 19-1, 15-6, 9-11, 20-2, 19-1, 18-2, 9-10, 14-7, 17-3, 20-0, 16-5, 18-3. That's a combined 194-51 or 79.2 percent.

Limited to conference games only, only Ohio State scores more ppg than Maryland. In the B1G, the combined record of the teams with the seven highest ppg average is 40-23 and the record of the seven lowest scoring teams is a combined 25-42. Now, this only shows that teams need to score to win and teams that don't score are less likely to win. But keep it in mind.

The Terps are an outstanding shooting team - as long as they stay inside the three point arc. Their field goal percentage in all games is fourth best in the nation. In conference play, the Terps' shooting percentage drops from 48.7 to 46.8 but the latter is still good enough to lead the conference. For the season, they connect on 53.3 percent of their two-point attempts - fourth best in the country while in conference games that number drops to 50.8. This is good for second best among the Terps' conference foes.

As we noted above, the Terps score efficiently - a trait successful teams have in common. Maryland scores 1.11 points per possession (ppp). Not only is this the best in the B1G, the Terrapins are third best in the NCAA. Who's better? Connecticut and Notre Dame. Nearly tied with Maryland are South Carolina and Baylor. The combined record of those five teams is 96-6. Exactly how impressive is 1.11 ppp? The national average is 0.8842.

Still have questions about the importance of offense and offensive efficiency? The table below lists the top ten RPI teams (and also shows their rank in the AP Poll). In reading the table, if you see a T next to a number it indicates a tie with one or more teams and anyplace you see an X, it indicates the team is not among the top fifty.

Team RPI AP Rank Points For Points Against 2 Point Field Goal % 3 Point Field Goal % Free Throw % Assists per Game Assist / Turnover Ratio Offensive Points per Possession Defensive Points per Possession
Notre Dame 1 4 2 X 3 11 19 6 16 2 T39
Tennessee 2 6 49 20 X X 18 X X 18 T9
Baylor 3 3 4 39 11 X X 1 2 T5 6
Maryland 4 5 6 X 4 X 17 T16 41 3 T33
Iowa 5 20 9 X T28 3 X T16 17 T13 X
Louisville 6 8 19 37 T17 X X 8 12 T13 T9
Connecticut 7 2 1 1 1 2 X 2 3 1 1
South Carolina 8 1 10 4 2 X X 9 11 T5 2
Oregon State 9 7 24 32 8 6 X 3 7 9 T19
Arizona State 10 11 X 30 33 21 49 28 37 16 X

Look to the right to see that not only is OPPP is the sole category in which all 10 teams are listed but they are all among the top 18. (I concede that a single partial season of data is not enough of a sample to show that this is not an anomaly, but it's certainly interesting.)

GRADING THE DEFENSE: B

The Big Ten may carry a heavy reputation for its physical play but in 2014-15, Maryland joined a scoring conference. There are 349 Division 1 women's college basketball teams. Five of the top 35 scoring teams in ppg play in the B1G and three of them are in the top ten. The ACC is the only other conference with five teams in that top 10 percent.

I hinted above that offense can be as effective as defense in determining winners and losers. The collective record of the top 12 defensive teams in ppg allowed is 187-48. Thus, the top 12 defensive teams have a win-loss percentage .0039 better than the top 12 scoring teams. Remove the only two teams that appear on both lists (UConn and South Carolina) and the gap narrows by one tenth of one percent.

I also noted above that the top seven scoring teams in the B1G have a combined record of 40-23. The top seven defensive teams in terms of ppg are a combined 37-28. (Note: The four teams who have already played their 10th conference game are all in the second group. This accounts for the two game difference in total games played.)

Maryland is among the better defensive teams in the Big Ten. Their averages of 59.6 ppg for all games and 63.3 ppg for conference games are second and first, respectively. In terms of defensive efficiency, the Terps are tied for second and first at 0.80 ppp and 0.85 ppp. And so on down the line. By many measures, Maryland is in the top four conference teams and almost always in the top half of the conference.

So why only a grade of B? Compared to some of their national peers, the Terrapins fall into the good but not great category. They are 80th in ppg, 33rd in ppp, and 105th in field goal percentage defense. But oh, that offense!

While not among the top 30 in either offensive rebounds or defensive rebounds per game, at plus 12.5, Maryland is fifth nationally in rebounding margin.

THE CLASSES

With one exception, rather than evaluating the performances of individual players, we'll wrap this up by looking at the players by class.

Senior Class (Laurin Mincy): A-

Since this year's senior class consists of only one player, the player and the class receive the same grade. Maryland's only senior has started every game and is second on the team in both scoring and assists while contributing four rebounds per game. Mincy has stepped up in a number of tight situations and provided the leadership one would expect from a senior. However, she has been a bit inconsistent. In the last six games she has scored 6, 24, 3, 17, 8, and 24. Perhaps Alyssa Thomas spoiled me but this inconsistency from a senior lowers her grade.

Junior Class (Malina Howard, Brene Moseley, Chloe Pavlech, Tierney Pfirman): B

Each of the members of this class has had some moments this season where they have made a crucial contribution to a Terps win. But there is no place their collective performance excels. In a crude way of measuring their output, we can look at their production relative to their minutes played. As a group they account for 27 percent of Maryland's minutes. In those minutes they score 22 percent of Maryland's points, grab 23 percent of the Terps' rebounds, and dish out 23 percent of the assists. Defensively, they account for 25 percent of blocked shots and 26 percent of the team's steals. Solid and steady.

Sophomore Class (Lexie Brown, Brionna Jones, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough): A

In this group we find Maryland's leaders in points, rebounds, assists, blocked shots, and steals. Using the same measurement we applied to the junior class, we see that in 39 percent of the minutes available, they account for 46 percent of the scoring, 39 percent of the rebounds, 39 percent of the assists, 55 percent of the blocked shots, and 51 percent of the team's steals. Three of a kind beats two pair.

Freshman Class (Kristen Confroy, Aja Ellison, A'Lexus Harrison, Kiara Leslie): Incomplete

Maryland coach Brenda Frese has had the luxury of not needing to ask much of her freshman class. Harrison is coming off a redshirt year and is still developing the skills she needs to match her athleticism. Ellison and Leslie are both recovering from injuries that hampered their development as high school seniors and Frese has been able to ease their transition to the college game. Confroy has gotten the most minutes thus far appearing in all 20 games. While playing mostly at the shooting guard position, she has displayed good court awareness and a soft touch both from outside the arc and at the free throw line.

The second half of the season and postseason tournaments await. I'm certain this collection of Terps are telling the B1G and the NCAA to bring it on.