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Maryland men’s basketball NCAA Tournament preview: First round vs UConn

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The Terps and Huskies figure to be locked in a defensive battle.

Michigan State v Maryland Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images

Maryland men’s basketball fought its way to the NCAA Tournament, but the postseason experience is anything but normal.

The Terps have been in Indianapolis since Wednesday, March 10, when they arrived for their first game of the Big Ten tournament. They moved from their original hotel to the one designated by the NCAA on Monday, joining a bubble of sorts and launching into quarantine. They’ve been getting ready for their March Madness debut since.

“It’s been a lot different, especially as I recall from my freshman year, but I mean, guys are excited to be able to have the tournament,” Wiggins said. “...We’re willing to do what it takes.”

Head coach Mark Turgeon’s squad also finds itself in an unfamiliar position, coming into its first round matchup as the lower seeded team for the first time in his tenure.

The 10-seed Terps are set to face the 7-seed Connecticut Huskies Saturday evening in their fifth appearance across the last six NCAA Tournaments.

While both teams have their differences, defense is a common denominator between the Huskies and Terps, with Saturday’s contest figuring to be a scrappy battle.

“It’s two coaches that like to coach defense,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “Dan [Hurley], he’s always been a great defensive coach and they do a nice job. They guard ball screens a little different than us, they do switch screens, [but] they don’t switch as many.”

Maryland and UConn tip off Saturday at 7:10 p.m. at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Indiana. The game will be televised on CBS.

UConn Huskies (15-7, 11-6 Big East)

2019-20 record: 19-12, 10-8 American

Head coach Dan Hurley is in his third year at Connecticut, looking to rebuild the program to its level of national prominence. In 2019-20, Hurley’s Huskies’ 19-12 record marked the team’s first winning season, most overall victories and most conference wins since the 2015-16 campaign.

UConn started the 2020-21 season with a short slate of nonconference games, highlighted by defeating eventual tournament team USC, 61-58, in early December. The Huskies were forced to pause team activities due to COVID-19 cases on Dec. 6 and remained out of play until Dec. 20, before more struggles came in 2021. The Huskies ultimately lost nine games this season to COVID-19. Star guard James Bouknight missed eight games, including four of the team’s seven losses, due to an elbow injury on Jan. 5. Upon his return on Feb. 13, UConn won six of its final seven games to end the regular season before falling in the Big East tournament semifinal to Creighton.

Prior to reaching Storrs, Connecticut, Hurley had a strong stint at Rhode Island, amassing a record of 113-82 across six seasons, including going 91-43 across his final four seasons with the Rams. While coaching at Rhode Island, Hurley had a bit of controversy against Maryland, as he and Turgeon got into things after a handshake line during the 2015 Cancun Challenge.

Players to know

James Bouknight, sophomore guard, 6-foot-5, 190 pounds (No. 2) — As a freshman in 2019-20, Bouknight burst onto the scene at the end of the season, starting the final 16 contests and ending the year with an average of 13.0 points across 25.9 minutes per game. Now as a sophomore, Bouknight has taken the lead role for UConn, averaging 19.0 points and 5.7 rebounds across 31.1 minutes per game. He was named to the All-Big East First Team this season despite missing over a month of action.

“That’ll be the primary matchup. That kid’s good,” Turgeon said. “He’s a really good player, but we like to switch screens. We’re going to do what we do, but if Bouknight’s getting really hot and doing some things, then we might lock Darryl into him.”

R.J. Cole, redshirt junior guard, 6-foot-1, 185 pounds (No. 1) — Next to Bouknight, Cole is the second face of the backcourt for UConn, also averaging 31.1 minutes per game along with 12.3 points, 4.4 assists and 2.9 rebounds. While Bouknight holds the majority of the offense, Cole figures to play a strong secondary role and can score the ball himself if Bouknight is locked up.

Cole’s minutes during Saturday’s contest may be up in the air, as the guard recently cleared concussion protocol. A hard fall against Creighton in the Big East semifinals caused concern for his availability at all, but Cole officially cleared protocol for practice Thursday.

Adama Sanogo, freshman forward, 6-foot-9, 240 pounds (No. 21) — Sanogo came into the college ranks after being ranked as a four-star Class of 2021 talent — the No. 83 player in the nation. Maryland was one of his top options, but he ultimately ended up at UConn. In Storrs, Sanogo has picked things up quickly, starting in 12 of 22 contests for the Huskies, averaging 7.5 points and 4.8 rebounds per game across 17.0 minutes. Despite being in a bit of a rotational role, Sanogo was named to the 2020-21 Big East All-Freshman team.

Isaiah Whaley, senior forward, 6-foot-9, 230 pounds (No. 5) — Whaley, the 2020-21 Big East Co-Defensive Player of the Year, leads the UConn defense with an average of 2.6 blocks per game. His 58 blocks lead the team by a wide margin, with Sanogo ranking second with 21 this season.

On the offensive end, Whaley averages 8.1 points and 6.1 rebounds per game as part of an inside trio with Sanogo and senior forward Tyler Polley.



Strength

Defense. UConn has similarities to Maryland, using its defense as a foundation to fuel its offense. The main difference between the two is that the Terps sit back and switch off of screens, while the Huskies are tighter in coverage and force tough shots. Connecticut sits at No. 28 in the nation, allowing an effective field goal percentage of just 46.2%.

Weakness

Getting to the free throw line. While the Huskies shoot a solid 73.1% from the charity stripe, they do struggle to create chances at the line. UConn sits at No. 228 in Division I with a free throw rate of 29.6. On the other end, Maryland has a rate of 32.6 and the Huskies sit at No. 293, allowing opponents a rate of 36.9 on average.

Three things to watch

1. Will Maryland win the battle on the boards? UConn is a team that plays strong defense but also averages 38.1 rebounds per game by a 4.8 margin. Maryland, on the other hand, has struggled to keep teams off the boards, especially on the offensive end. With this matchup figuring to be a gritty battle, stopping the Huskies on the board will play a big role.

“I think the biggest separation in our teams is how well they offensive rebound,” Turgeon said. “It’s not a big priority for us, transition defense is a bigger priority. But we have to box out extremely well Saturday night to beat this team.”

2. Will the Terps get enough help on offense? Defense can win championships, but without an offense behind it, a strong effort defensively can be wiped away pretty easily. For Maryland, the duo of Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala will continue to play a key role in sparking the team offensively, averaging a combined 33.0 points across the last five games. With the season on the line every game from here on out, their success will be instrumental.

“Just try to be efficient,” Ayala said. “In the Michigan game, we probably shot the ball quicker in some possessions than we usually [do], so [we] definitely want to play our pace, pick the pace that benefits us the most. As the game goes on, we try to find certain spots or areas where we can attack. I trust Aaron, I know Aaron trusts me, and the rest of our team counts on us.”

3. How will Maryland’s play translate against a non-Big Ten opponent? The Terps opened the season with a rather lackluster nonconference slate that allowed the team to coast, up until Clemson gave the Terps a strong wake-up call in December. Throughout Big Ten play, Maryland has battled with the best teams in the nation, eventually finding its main lineups, rotations and defensive identity. Though the team finished in eighth place in its own conference, the way in which they play may have them more built for March. We’ll find out just how that translates on Saturday night.

Predictions

Vegas: Connecticut -3 (as of Friday afternoon)

ESPN BPI: (34.8% chance of Maryland win)

KenPom: Connecticut 66, Maryland 64 (43% chance of Maryland win)

Me: Connecticut 70, Maryland 68