Maryland men’s basketball is breaking records, but not the kind of records that many people expected this preseason top-25 team to do 14 games into the regular season slate.
Through three conference games, the Terps remain winless in Big Ten play. Maryland fell to Northwestern in Danny Manning’s first game as interim head coach, then to Iowa in its first true road game, followed by a crushing 12-point defeat to a strong and a likely soon-to-be ranked Illinois team on Thursday night.
“It’s about this road swing that we’ve been on, we’ve shown we can compete, now we’ve got to do a better job of finishing,” Manning said after the Illinois game. “That’s something we’ll continue to talk about and work on as a team.”
Maryland’s 0-3 Big Ten record is the longest stretch of conference play losses it has had since joining the Big Ten in 2014. But it’s not just the record within the Big Ten, Maryland suffered three losses in nonconference play, too.
The potential for Maryland’s season to get out of hand is becoming somewhat of a reality and its inability to stop some of the Big Ten’s best in the last two outings put a dent in the Terps’ postseason aspirations.
First, it was Iowa’s Keegan Murray, whose scoring prowess was noticed by the Maryland faithful in his career-high 35-point performance, which stopped the Terps from securing their first conference win. Then Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn proved why he is one of the best, if not the best, big man in the nation standing at 7-feet tall. The preseason Associated Press All-America Team selection forcefully hauled in 18 rebounds, while Maryland grabbed just 27 as a team through 40 minutes.
Things get even more tricky when you piece together that Maryland held rare halftime leads against both Iowa and Illinois.
“I mean our whole season, a lot of our losses, you know we’ve been close in a game, not just our last two games but a lot of our games that we’ve played in,” senior guard Eric Ayala said.
Despite this, the star players glistened brighter than ever against Maryland’s otherwise answerless defense. Now it is in the midst of a two-game losing streak because of it. Six losses in the first 14 games of the season are not where many expected the Terps to be at this point, not by a long shot with how this team was projected to play out early on when the hopes were still high in the summer of 2021.
Yet, here we are. Maryland is staring down an 0-4 start in Big Ten competition with a red-hot Wisconsin team coming to College Park on Sunday evening. Not to mention that Maryland’s home dominance has taken a significant dip as well, and it has already dropped three games in the Xfinity Center.
In Maryland’s last two games against Iowa and Illinois, it faced the highest-ranked teams it has all season per the KenPom rankings. Iowa is No. 25 and Illinois is No. 12 as of Jan. 6. But even with those difficult matchups, the problem in those games hasn't stemmed from the play of the Terps’ traditional and ever-unchanging starting five, and more specifically, the Terps’ top four scorers.
Ayala, Maryland’s top scorer, has put up a combined 35 points on 55.5% shooting in those meetings, including an impressive 8-for-14 clip from deep with just one turnover. Graduate guard Fatts Russell had a bit of an efficiency issue against Illinois, going just 4-for-11, but he has still scored 27 points over the last two. Junior forward Donta Scott notched 28 points over the same span and Hakim Hart collected 22 as well.
All of those four top scorers combined to have only eight turnovers in the last two Big Ten games. The top four scorers have been getting the job done.
And then down low, Maryland’s big man combination of Qudus Wahab and Julian Reese has struggled, especially against one of the nation’s best in Cockburn.
“He’s a big guy down there, I knew Kofi since I was in high school, he always been like that,” Scott said. “He’s always been a challenge and he made a big difference when he was on the court.”
Wahab and Reese fouled out after quiet offensive performances, finishing with just four points in that game as a duo after combining for 16 against Iowa.
The real issue lies with the depth.
The team desperately needed a spark outside of its starting five plus Reese to help match with the depth that so many teams like Illinois and Iowa possess in the Big Ten. And it’s not that they are not contributing enough, it’s that the bench for Maryland isn’t necessarily contributing much of anything lately.
And as a result, that’s killing any kind of upset hopes that Maryland has had going into a game like the ones against the Fighting Illini and the Hawkeyes. Besides Reese, the first two players off the bench are sophomore guard Ian Martinez and graduate guard Xavier Green. And while both players have their respective skill sets and are talented in their own right, their overall production is not near the baseline that Maryland desperately needs to succeed in conference play.
Since putting up a season-high 13 points against Hofstra in mid-November, Martinez has played in seven games since, excluding when he got hurt against Northwestern and exited for the remainder of the game. In those seven games, Martinez was held scoreless on three occasions. The most he has scored since that Hofstra game has been three points and he’s shooting 1-for-12 over his last six games. Against Iowa and Illinois, Martinez played on the floor for 14 combined minutes and finished with just two points, both of which were free throws, and three turnovers.
Martinez was expected to take a leap after transferring from Utah. He appeared in 25 games as a freshman and put up an average of 5.2 points per game in the 2020-21 season, including averaging nearly 10 points per game over the final six contests of the season. This year, Martinez is averaging a meager 3.2 points on 30% shooting.
Then looking at Green, who is primarily a defender for Manning, his contributions are not very viable against stronger Big Ten teams so far, either. He tied his season-high with three points in 21 minutes against Illinois, but his offensive capabilities are certainly limited. Green has played double-digit minutes in every game this season but has shot the ball just 25 times (seven of those shots came in the first two games of the season).
Outside of the opening two games of the season, Green is averaging just over a shot per game. And in the last two games combined, Green has played 36 minutes and scored five points, and he has failed to record a steal over the last four games as well. Overall, he’s averaging just 1.3 points in over 16 minutes on the court per contest. As a senior at Old Dominion in the 2020-21 season before transferring to Maryland, Green averaged 6.7 points per game.
Martinez and Green have been struggling to chip in on offense and it has only made things harder for the Terps when they face Big Ten programs.
Can other players like Simon Wright, Marcus Dockery, Pavlo Dziuba or even Ike Cornish provide a jolt to this 8-6 roster? There’s potential but it seems that there is some reluctance from Manning to go deep into his bench. Only Reese, Martinez and Green came off the bench for Maryland in the Illinois and Iowa defeats.
Ultimately, Maryland will need some kind of boost from an untapped source other than its starters if it wants to keep games close. If not, Maryland might just see its NCAA Tournament hopes continue to dangle by a thread with each passing game. Keep in mind, four of the Terps’ next five matchups all consist of teams that are ranked higher on KenPom than them.
With no spark from outside of its starting five, that thread might just keep getting thinner.