Maryland men’s basketball had a nightmarish start to 2023, getting destroyed by Michigan, 81-46, as Big Ten play resumed. It was the largest loss the Terps had suffered since joining the Big Ten.
“There’s nothing, I don’t think there’s anything I can say besides I totally let down this program and these kids, so this is on me,” Maryland head coach Kevin Willard said in his postgame radio interview with Chris Knoche. “This is a total, total failure.”
Michigan had sputtered to start the season, and went into Sunday with a 7-5 record after losing to lowly in-state foe Central Michigan last Thursday. It seemed like the team had taken all of its anger out on the Terps, who were thoroughly embarrassed for the second time this season.
Let’s dive into the takeaways.
Bad offensive starts are becoming an unfortunate trend for the Terps.
Everything that could have went wrong to start Sunday’s game went, well, somehow even worse than expected.
Coming out of the gates, the Terps turned the ball over on two of their first three possessions. Then, sophomore forward Julian Reese picked up his first foul just over two minutes into the game, a sign that he and the rest of his frontcourt mates would have problems with Michigan 7-foot-1 star center Hunter Dickinson.
But no, that was not all. At the first-half under-16 timeout, Michigan held a shocking 16-0 lead, one that would inch up to 17-0 after Terrance Williams II finished the drill on a layup plus a foul.
Maryland missed its first 10 shot attempts of the game until junior guard Ian Martinez finally got it on the board with a 3-pointer with 12:09 to play in the first half, one that was hardly a panacea for Maryland’s disastrous start.
The Terps trailed 25-4 at the under-eight media timeout of the first half, and not a single starter had touched nylon yet.
By halftime, the game was wrapped up, as Michigan held a 44-13 lead. The Wolverines shot a blazing 66.7% from the field in the first 20 minutes, and Maryland shot just 13% (4-of-30). It was an outright embarrassment for the Terps, who never had any hope Sunday.
Hunter Dickinson’s animosity toward Maryland is well-documented, and he capitalized with yet another big game against it.
Dickinson attended DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, which is just about 2.5 miles away from the University of Maryland campus. Dickinson has constantly ranted about his perceived lack of recruitment from the nearby program under then-head coach Mark Turgeon.
Seemingly, even though he has yet to play in front of an XFINITY Center with no attendance restrictions — that will happen on Jan. 19 — he seems to have a little extra juice when playing against the Terps.
In four previous games against Maryland, Dickinson had two 20-point performances, scoring 26 on Dec. 31, 2020 in College Park and 21 on Jan. 18, 2022 in Ann Arbor. Sunday was a new level of greatness.
Dickinson finished the game with 32 points on 13-of-16 shooting and grabbed 12 rebounds. It was the third 30-point showing of his career and one point shy of his career-high 33 points against Michigan State on March 1, 2022.
Dickinson’s performance was hardly a surprise considering Maryland’s frontcourt circumstances. Reese, who recently came back from a shoulder injury, stands at 6-foot-9 and has struggled with physicality from opposing teams. Backup big Patrick Emilien is a serviceable, physical player, but his 6-foot-7 frame and skillset were no match for Dickinson. Other than that, 6-foot-11 freshman center Caelum Swanton-Rodger wasn’t thrown into the fire until the second half.
Regardless, there were times when Dickinson was left alone with just one defender or the help came too late. The book on Dickinson, especially when the opponent is undersized, has to be to send ferocious double-teams at him when he touches the ball in the post. The lack of preparedness and answers for Dickinson was glaring Sunday, as the Virginia native had another huge game in a shameful loss for the Terps.
Dickinson is a perfect 5-0 in his career against Maryland.
Maryland’s DNA was clear during its 8-0 start. What is it now?
During Maryland’s early-season success, its intensity was as clear as day. The Terps played hard for 40 minutes straight, and all anyone could talk about was the team’s buy-in under Willard in year one.
Willard set the tone in the preseason that his team would play not only hard but fast, and his signature press early on helped mold that identity.
Suddenly, it feels like that has dissipated.
On Nov. 20, following Maryland’s 88-70 drubbing of now-No. 14 Miami, Willard explained his offensive philosophy.
“I have an easy rule. I’m a pretty easy coach to play for,” Willard said following the Miami game. “If you play really hard, I’ll let you take any shot you want pretty much, and I’ll let you do. It’s the only thing I ask is that you come out and you play hard, you play together. And I’ll let you kind of do what you want to do. So I think these guys understand that. I also think it’s their personalities. Again, we have unbelievably high character kids who want to win, and they understand what it takes to win and they’re bringing it every night and they’re getting rewarded. They’re getting rewarded for their hard work and their effort they’re putting in and that’s what matters to me.”
While critics will quickly point to Willard publicly saying he will let his team do whatever it wants on offense, it is tough to imagine that is truly the case. But with a performance like Sunday, and some of Maryland’s recent ones as well, it raises questions.
“I don’t know, I might tear everybody down after this,” Willard said. “You just can’t come out and play like that. As a player, we didn’t do anything toughness, we didn’t anything with anything that was ... it baffles my mind. Even if something’s not going right, we didn’t dive on the loose balls, they got every loose ball.”
Playing hard and playing competent offensive basketball are certainly not mutually exclusive, as both will shift and affect each other in the normal flow of a game. However, it feels like the DNA of this team has shifted.
Sunday’s performance against Michigan felt eerily similar to Maryland’s first half against Tennessee on Dec. 11 as well as its performance against UCLA on Dec. 14. The Terps had careless turnovers, they were getting outhustled and failed to respond to any of the punches thrown their way.
“The one thing about the personality of this team is they’re so quiet, they’re so quiet,” Willard said. “And when we can’t score and we can’t get going into stuff, it just, that’s where we’ve really just been — especially against bigger teams — we got to figure out how to score against bigger teams.”
Things are going to have to change fast if the once-ranked-No. 13 team in the nation is going to have a fruitful regular season and an NCAA Tournament appearance. It starts with getting back to that identity. With 17 games remaining before the Big Ten Tournament, Willard and his crew have time, but worry has bubbled.
“This is on me,” Willard said. “This has nothing to do with the players. This is totally on me, and I’ll get it right.”