After Donta Scott hit a pair of free throws to bring Maryland men’s basketball within 10 points of Rutgers in its Dec. 14 Big Ten opener with under a minute to go, the Terps jumped into a full-court press.
Aquan Smart, Eric Ayala, Aaron Wiggins, Darryl Morsell and Scott all set up in the backcourt, desperately hoping to force a turnover and continue closing the gap. When Geo Baker got the inbound pass and found a gap up the sideline, he looked up and saw Myles Johnson all alone in the paint. The long pass to the open man resulted in a powerful slam, sinking the Terps one and for all.
That slam marked one of 63 shot attempts that Maryland allowed in the paint through its first two games against high-major opponents, highlighting a key struggle for the program.
“[We’re] just trying to figure out ways to be better defensively,” head coach Mark Turegon said in early December. “There’s constantly work on a lot of things, but most importantly just communication and toughness. I think it’ll be big and when we get better at that, we’ll be a better defensive team.”
Maryland started Big Ten play by facing ranked opponents in 10 of its first 13 conference matchups, a tough way to learn a hard lesson. Facing dominant big men like Luka Garza, Hunter Dickinson and more, the Terps had to piece things together on the fly.
Wins on the road against Wisconsin and Illinois around the turn of the new year showed ability and progress, but there was still room to go.
“I think we gotta man up ourselves sometimes and play harder on defense sometimes, you know, compete as tough as we should,” junior forward Jairus Hamilton said Jan. 22. “I think sometimes our communication isn’t as strong as we should have it. I think we have to sometimes just compete harder.”
The Terps managed to put together their best defense performance of the season the next day, holding then-No. 17 Minnesota to just 49 points on its home floor as part of a dominant 63-49 victory. The Golden Gophers had just 46 shot attempts that evening, including just 17 inside the paint.
“We locked in defensively from the first possession and the guys were dialed into the game plan,” Turgeon said after that game. “We were fighting, we were guarding the ball, we were fighting on the post, we really rebounded well, we’re giving up a lot of size. So defensively, we were just terrific. ... They showed me something tonight.”
Increased communication, energy and toughness have now paved the way for Maryland to have a sneakily good NCAA Tournament resume and stack up with some of the best teams this season.
In the last 10 games, the Terps have held opponents to just 29.7 two-point attempts per game at a conversion rate of just 44.1%, ranking in the 96th and 93rd percentiles across the country, respectively.
During Sunday’s rematch with Rutgers, Maryland directly showed its defensive growth, allowing the Scarlet Knights just 33 two-point attempts, 28 of which came in the paint. The Terps made it difficult for Rutgers to get the ball inside, forcing 22 three-point attempts and allowing just five conversions.
All five guys moving as one.— Maryland Basketball (@TerrapinHoops) February 22, 2021
Embrace the defensive grind. pic.twitter.com/bnEyvaDsq0
“To come in here and play the way we played is really a credit to our players,” Turgeon said after the rematch. “We played with unbelievable toughness, our defense from beginning until about the two-minute mark was terrific.”
On top of their defense, the Terps have seen a sharp positive uptick on the offensive side of the ball. Despite an offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) of exactly 100 in the last 10 games, which sits in the 30th percentile nationally, Maryland has surged to a 107.3 offensive rating across the last five games, up to the 65th percentile.
After posting their season-low of 50 points at Penn State on Feb. 5, the Terps have averaged 69.6 points in their last five contests, reaching 70 twice after not doing so since December. They have seen their offensive rating spike in comparison to the rest of the Big Ten; they’re just 11th in the league across the last 10 games but fifth across the last five.
Even with the offensive trending in a positive direction, it is clear that the defensive side of the ball is winning games.
“We’ve worked on every aspect of our game, especially defensively, and we know how good of a defensive team we are,” junior guard Aaron Wiggins said Sunday. “So our guys showed a lot of improvement and a lot of different things over the last month alone.”
With March around the corner and Maryland sitting on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, the next step is to start building onto its success and bringing its depth up to the same level.
The lineup of Hakim Hart, Ayala, Wiggins, Morsell and Scott has been the most utilized for the Terps this season, playing 122 total minutes, including 38 in the last five games, but has not produced the best results as of late.
The lineup of Ayala, Wiggins, Morsell, Scott and Hamilton, which has only played 83 minutes this season, has been used for 32 minutes over the last five games — the second-most of this stretch. This unit has far and away been the best offensive choice as of late, ranking in the 81st percentile nationally with a rating of 129.8. On the defensive side, this group sits in the 79th percentile with a rating of 81.3, the third-best Maryland lineup over the last five games.
In the final three games of the regular season, the Terps will face only teams in the bottom four of the Big Ten this season in net rating, which is point differential per 100 possessions. With Maryland playing well on the defensive end, closing out the season strong will be the best way to propel into the madness.