In the season's first two months, Maryland ran one of the slower offenses in college basketball. The Terps scored points at a top-40 rate while consistently lagging near the bottom of the country in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted possessions per game – usually sticking in the low 60s.
Since Big Ten play started on Dec. 30, though, Maryland's pace has skyrocketed. The Terps average an adjusted 65.9 possessions per game in league competition, dwarfing second-place Minnesota by 0.9 possessions per game. That doesn't sound significant, but it's a margin that separates an average of roughly 40 teams nationally. And while Maryland has moved faster and faster with the ball, its offense has cratered, falling to 12th of 14 Big Ten teams in adjusted offensive efficiency after Sunday's loss at Iowa. In their last five games, the Terps have scored an average of 62.6 points, which would be one of the worst marks in major college basketball if taken over a full year.
Simply put, as the Terps have sped up, their offense has slowed down. But it isn't clear that one has directly lead to the other, and their head coach isn't concerned about it.
"You always want to get easy ones if you can. I don't think we play fast enough, to be quite honest with you, at times," Mark Turgeon said Tuesday as his team prepared for a Wednesday rematch with Indiana at Xfinity Center. "We're still trying to find ourselves a little bit offensively. We've talked about it, We just need to be more efficient, whether we're running or walking it up into a set."
Maryland's expedition of pace has coincided, more or less, with the return from injury six weeks ago of guard Dez Wells, one of the conference's savviest transition threats. Their move to the top of the conference in pace has also come with a jump to the fourth-worst turnover rate in conference play and a two-point field goal rate (41.1 percent) that places them dead last. Their finishing around the rim has been poor, but Maryland would like to get more low-block chances for some of its best players.
"I think getting me and Dez more post-up opportunities will get us going inside a little more, and get Jon Graham going too with similar post-ups," forward Jake Layman said. "When we play out of the post, we get whatever we want."
Layman is clearly confident in the power forward position he's played more often this year than any other. And Wells has always been in his element in the post, where he took up residence especially often during his first two seasons as a Terrapin.
But while Layman and Graham have been good in that spot this year (both are shooting 56 or 57 percent on two-pointers), Wells has struggled from in close, shooting just 41 percent from inside the arc. That, of course, equals the abysmal 41 percent Maryland has shot on twos during conference play.
In more ways than that, Wells has been a mirror of his team's offensive successes and failures. While his close shooting has suffered, Wells is a 52-percent three-point shooter and a 76-percent foul shooter. Even as Maryland has fallen to 13th in the league in conference play in effective field goal percentage, its threes and free throws have ranked fifth and sixth, respectively. The Terps score just 43.3 percent of their points in the form of two-pointers, placing them 327th in the nation. They've been a terrific shooting team from the line and from deep, but they've been downright terrible in tight.
This brings us back to the issue of pace. When a team seeks out fast-break points – as Turgeon stated Tuesday he wants Maryland to do – a lot of those chances naturally come near the hoop. Wells is Maryland's most obvious example of this point. Sometimes his quick drives to the hoop end with a kaboom, like this, but sometimes they end with turnovers, like this:
Clearly, no cherry-picked video clip makes a trend. But Maryland's numbers on two-pointers suggest drives to the basket have been a problem. The Terps' drop in efficiency and increase in pace are definitely correlated, and it's not easy to say if there's a cause-and-effect relationship here.
That doesn't mean a couple of numbers don't stand out. Maryland's playing fast, which is consistent with that nearly bottom-of-the-Big-Ten turnover rate of 19 percent in conference play. Controlling the ball when moving with speed is no easy thing. It's also consistent with the idea that Maryland struggles to score in transition, in situations where scoring near the basket is an essential skill. On a more positive note, it's consistent with getting to the foul line frequently, which Maryland's still doing to the tune of the third-best free throw rate in league games. On the whole, though, Maryland's struggling, and it's hard not to try to connect the dots.
"When we control the tempo, we're a really good team," Graham said. "We've shown that we can run, but we've also shown that we can play in a half-court. We can slow it down."
Maryland had a lot of half-court success early in the season, and Graham chalked up the Terps' recent offensive problems to something simple.
"We just haven't been shooting the ball well. We've been getting a lot of great, open looks, guys that we know can shoot the ball. At the end of the day, you've just got to knock them down," he said.
Turgeon's task is to get Maryland's offense back to where it was earlier in the season, whether a return to a slower pace comes with it or not. He'd like the Terps to score between 1.15 and 1.25 points per possession. That would put the Terps at between about 79 and 85 points per game if their tempo trend holds – enough to beat any team left on Maryland's schedule, probably, except for juggernaut Wisconsin later this month.
"If you're doing that, you're being successful," Turgeon said, "no matter how many possessions you have."