The best thing Maryland's men's basketball program has done in years happened on Feb. 24, when it beat a visiting Wisconsin team that had looked previously – and has certainly looked since – like an unstoppable juggernaut.
The Badgers, of course, play Duke in Indianapolis Monday night for college basketball's national title. By a staggering three points per 100 possessions, they boast the most efficient offense in the history of Ken Pomeroy's measurements. Their record is 36-3. They were 25-2 when they visited College Park and took an uncharacteristic pounding, and they are 11-0 since – including wins over two Final Four teams and with an average margin of victory of 11.6 points.
Imagine a perfect basketball team, the most talented ever to play the college game. Then imagine that Wisconsin beat that team by seven points and had one of its best players muttering slurs at a postgame press conference. That happened. Wisconsin did that. The Badgers are so, so good.
They are practically unbeatable, except that the Terrapins, somehow, beat them.
Duke, for what it's worth, also beat Wisconsin this season, way back on Dec. 3. But the Badgers are a different team now than then, even if their dominance has been constant. Wisconsin's leading scorer in its 80-70 loss that night was guard Traevon Jackson, who has played 28 total minutes since Jan. 11. Rutgers beat Wisconsin, too, when Naismith Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky sat out with an injury on Jan. 11. Maryland is the only team in the country to have beaten this Badgers team, as it will appear on the hardwood at Lucas Oil Stadium.
How did Maryland do it? Simply, it got the right mix of a few key factors:
Wisconsin went cold.
This is the most obvious thing. The Badgers shot 6-of-22 (27 percent) on three-pointers, down from their solid season average of 36.5 percent. In the 11 games since then, Wisconsin has shot better from deep 11 times. If the Badgers had shot at their usual rate from deep, They'd have scored 59 points instead of 53. They lost the game, 59-53. Guards Josh Gasser and Bronson Koenig, who double as two of the most efficient scorers in the nation, went 3-of-17 from the field. Maryland played decent defense that night, but it's probably impossible to willfully make Gasser and Koenig repeat that ever again. In this sense, Maryland got very, very lucky. Duke will need the same.
Kaminsky was a human.
And it's a good thing, or else we'd be seriously questioning whether the Wisconsin center is a basket-balling cyborg. Kaminsky had 18 points on 7-of-14 shooting, hampered all night by the surprisingly prolific post defense of Maryland's Evan Smotrycz and Michal Cekovsky. Eighteen points isn't a bad output, but Kaminsky got them the hard way and never dominated Maryland's big men. Big Frank is averaging 22.2 points in the tournament, and he's posted offensive ratings of at least 107 every time out – a few points better than he had against Maryland. This is the best player in the country, and Jahlil Okafor isn't a top NBA prospect for his defense. Duke's going to have its hands more than full.
Maryland slowed things down.
The easiest way to depress a scoreboard is to hold down a team's possessions. The Badgers play really slowly anyway, with their 59 adjusted possessions per game second to last in the country among power-conference teams. Maryland usually played quickly, especially in conference play. But the Terps were deliberate in the half-court against Wisconsin, and the Badgers only got 57 possessions – two fewer than usual. At Wisconsin's normal scoring rate, that was about a two- or three-point difference, in a game separated by three points heading into the final minute. Duke plays at a pretty brisk pace (66 adjusted possessions per game), so it'll be interesting to see if Mike Krzyzewski tries to make this a track meet. If not, going at a snail's pace and trying to win with defense is the alternative.
Guard play was king.
There's a smidgen of narrative to this, but great college teams are now more often than not built around great guards. Wisconsin is an exception, with Kaminsky and forwards Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes plowing through defenses and opening up space for scoring guards like Gasser and Koenig. Mark Turgeon had to know Maryland wouldn't win the game on the interior against Kaminsky and company, and he turned the game over to his own best players: Dez Wells and Melo Trimble. Trimble was only OK, but he badly outplayed Wisconsin's guards. Wells, meanwhile, took over the game; his 26-point showing on 9-of-17 shooting was one of the better performances of the year from anybody, as neither Hayes nor Dekker nor Gasser could hang with him.
Dominant guard play has been a central pillar for every team that's so much as kept Wisconsin close this season, at least until this Final Four. Kaminsky is better than Okafor. Dekker and Hayes certainly won't be outmatched by Justise Winslow and Matt Jones, good as they may be. If Duke's going to win, here's a guess: Guards Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones are going to have to drive the ship. Where opposing guards don't dominate, there's a good chance Wisconsin does.