The Wisconsin Badgers are a juggernaut, and Maryland probably won't beat them Tuesday night at Xfinity Center.
It's important to get that out of the way, because No. 5 Wisconsin has one of the great offenses in college basketball history and has steamrolled the vast majority of its competition. It's no knock on 14th-ranked Maryland, which has put together a resurgent season and only lost once all along at home – in December, to Virginia, one of the four or five teams in the country that's just as good as these Badgers.
The Terps' peripheral statistics have slid lately, and neither their offensive nor defensive efficiency has stood out since league play began at the end of December. It's undeniable that Maryland has been fortunate to arrive at Tuesday night ranked in the top 15 nationally, sitting at 22-5 and a stunning 8-0 in games decided by six points or less.
It's equally undeniable, though, that these Terps are good. They've got five wins against top-50 teams by RPI, a metric that rates Maryland 11th in the country. Associated Press and Coaches Poll voters call them the nation's 14th-best team. Even if you believe, like Ken Pomeroy's model, that Maryland is only the 39th-best team in the country, well, there are more than 350 teams on that list. Wisconsin is certainly better, but this bout doesn't pit David versus Goliath.
How Maryland can win
Wisconsin doesn't have a weakness. It is elite in virtually every offensive category, and its defense is a perfectly fine 47th nationally in adjusted efficiency. The Badgers force few turnovers, but they keep points off the board all the same. If you're looking for something Maryland can exploit with Wisconsin firing on all cylinders, you'll be looking for a while.
But what if the Badgers aren't ticking? Maryland would still need to play a nearly perfect game to beat them, but it's been done before. The Badgers have lost twice this season: once at home against fellow giant Duke and once at Rutgers, with certain All-American center Frank Kaminsky sitting out with an injury. Georgetown stayed within three points of Wisconsin in a loss on Nov. 27, but no one else has come particularly close to beating Bo Ryan's team.
We can't take anything away from Wisconsin's loss to abysmal Rutgers other than that Kaminsky wasn't playing. I'm not sure there's a 100 percent chance the Badgers would have turned a five-point loss into a win with Kaminsky playing, but it's probably close to that. So we've got two teams who have made Wisconsin truly vulnerable with Kaminsky in the lineup: Duke (which won) and Georgetown (which didn't).
Melo Trimble has to be the best player on the floor. When Duke beat Wisconsin on Dec. 3, Blue Devil point guard Tyus Jones was the game's best player. He scored 22 points on 7-of-11 shooting and had 6 rebounds across 37 minutes, matching now-injured Wisconsin guard Traevon Jackson step for step. When Georgetown put its scare into the Badgers a week before that, point guard D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera was the game's defining star, with 29 points on 11-of-18 shooting, 5 rebounds and 3 assists in 37 minutes of his own. No one else had more than 10 for the Hoyas, who came within a field goal of Wisconsin. And for good measure, when Rutgers beat the Kaminsky-less Badgers, it happened behind 39 quality minutes (and a team-leading 21 points) from tiny point guard Myles Mack. All three point guards in those games against Wisconsin were named the game MVP by Pomeroy's computers. It is virtually impossible for Maryland to beat Wisconsin if Trimble, a freshman comparable to Duke's Jones, isn't superb. Nobody without that kind of point guard play has even come close.
Kaminsky and Sam Dekker can't erupt together. Along with Kaminsky, Dekker is a surefire NBA talent, a 6-foot-9 forward whose versatility and scoring touch make him a fun match for Maryland's Jake Layman. When Kaminsky and Dekker are at their best together, Wisconsin wins, period. Kaminsky had his worst game of the season by a country mile in Georgetown's almost-upset, scoring just 6 points while Dekker provided a strong 17 on 6-of-11 shooting. In their loss to Duke, Kaminsky and Dekker combined for just 23 points on 17 shots. Layman's defense against Dekker, along with that of whoever Mark Turgeon elects to use against Kaminsky, must be stout for Maryland to have any chance. This is easier said than done.
Maryland needs to make Wisconsin foul, which rarely happens. Maryland has an exceptionally hard time winning games when it doesn't make more foul shots than its opponent. The Terps have usually been able to do that, as they sit inside the top 20 nationally in free throw percentage and frequency. Unfortunately for them, Wisconsin fouls almost comically rarely, which keeps its bigs like Kaminsky off the bench and limits opposing chances from the foul line. The Badgers' ratio of free throw attempts allowed to opponent field goal attempts is the third-best mark in the country (just 22.4 percent, compared to a national average of 37 percent), which might spell trouble for free throw-obsessed Maryland. Georgetown and Duke actually didn't do this, but don't expect Maryland to have much luck without both drawing more fouls than the Badgers and making more ensuing free throws. The charity stripe must be a constant destination.
All of these things are tall orders, which is why Wisconsin is in line to win the Big Ten and claim, at worst, a second seed in the NCAA Tournament. But if Trimble can deliver, Dekker and Kaminsky can't and Maryland can knock down free throws, maybe – just maybe – the Terps could claim a season-defining win.