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With a title on its mind, No. 9 Maryland men’s basketball is relying on its tenacious defense

The Terps are learning from 2019 national contenders Virginia and Texas Tech.

Jalen Smith, defense, Rutgers, 2020 Sarah Sopher / Testudo Times

No. 9 Maryland men’s basketball assistant coach Matt Brady is a big metrics guy, hoping to use different stats and analytics to help the Terps find success. And before this season, he realized that the two teams that competed in the 2019 National Championship — Texas Tech and Virginia — were the two best defensive units in college basketball.

After bringing this up to head coach Mark Turgeon, Brady became set on doing anything he could to help the Terps be the best defensive team possible in 2019-20. And before the season started, he made sure players were familiar with one particular phrase that has forged the team’s identity: “Defense wins championships.”

“We always talk about last year’s national championship between Virginia and Texas Tech was [the] two best defensive teams in the country,” junior guard Darryl Morsell said in January. “We know if we want to get to that point, we got to be one of the best defensive teams in the country.”

Maryland still has a long ways to go to compete for that glorified title down in Atlanta this April, but that mentality has been embodied throughout the season as it tries to get that point.

The Terps are fifth in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency (88.3), per KenPom, ahead of any team in the Big Ten and only below Virginia, No. 13 West Virginia, No. 3 Kansas and No. 1 Baylor. Only the latter two have a better adjusted offensive efficiency than Maryland.

The team has been especially dominant in conference play, holding its opponents under its scoring average in nine of its 11 Big Ten contests — and the other two still resulted in wins. Maryland has also held teams under their season average field goal percentage in eight of 11 conference games.

What might be even more impressive though is how the Terps stack up against the rest of the country. In conference play, they rank in the top-10 in 12 of 14 different defensive statistical categories on KenPom, including being first in the nation in opponents’ free-throw rate (20.2).

Defensively, Maryland is also second in the country in non-steal turnover percentage (10.7%), third in the country in effective field goal percentage (44.5%), third in two-point field goal percentage (44.1%) and fourth in the nation in efficiency (95.4),

“It’s been really, really good,” Brady told Testudo Times. “We haven’t quite reached [our ceiling]. ... Our guys are really excited about what they’re doing on the court. And Coach Turgeon is going to keep continuing to stress this idea of everyday improvement, and let’s keep getting better so that we peak at the right time, which is the end of the year.”

Coaches and players alike have don’t believe the team has reached its peak quite yet, though Maryland is on a five-game winning streak. Sharp defense has played a crucial role in the Terps’ victories so far this season, particularly against Rutgers Tuesday night.

Maryland held Rutgers to 51 points, which is tied for its season-low, along with a 34 percent shooting clip from the field and a measly 18 percent from deep.

The Terps struggled tremendously on offense in the first half, going the last 9:21 without a field goal, but stayed in it to only be down five points at the break thanks to their play on the other end — including holding the Scarlet Knights scoreless for the final 5:26 of the half.

“We gotta play defense, we got to,” senior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. said. “We know sometimes our offense is not gonna fall for us. We can’t let that affect the other end. We really showed that in the second half.”

Throughout the game, Rutgers was held without a field goal for seven stretches of at least two minutes, four of which came in the second half.

“We were terrific on defense,” Turgeon said. “We really worked hard on defense the last two days because that’s who we need to be. We have some good individual defenders and guys that really competed defensively and that’s how we came out on top.”

In the two games prior against Indiana and then-No. 18 Iowa, Maryland allowed 76 and 72 points, respectively, with the Hoosiers able to make 52.6 percent of their shots from the floor and 47.4 percent on three-point attempts.

So before facing the Scarlet Knights, Turgeon stressed that guys challenged his team on the defensive end.

“The past couple games, we [were] doing a lot of switching, switching one through four, this game, we didn’t really switch. You had a man and it was your job to stop your man,” Morsell said. “We know we have to be good defensively if we want to be playing late in March. So he challenged us to take our matchups personal, and we did that tonight.”

Now as the team heads on the road to face No. 20 Illinois in a battle for sole possession of first place in the Big Ten, continuing that defensive focus will be crucial.

“We just rely on our defense,” Turgeon said. “I must have said it 50 times in the game against Rutgers, ‘Just keep guarding and rebounding, just keep guarding and rebounding.’ And they did it. So we rely on that, and hopefully we can take it on the road and be a good defensive team.”