Maryland narrowly beat Northwestern on Tuesday night in a prototypical Big Ten slugfest. It was the Wildcats' second brush with victory in two seasons at Xfinity Center, only to have the Terps eek out wins on both occasions.
Northwestern lost but held Maryland to 62 points in 45 minutes and a paltry 0.886 points per possession. The Terps have generally been offensive dynamite this season, but Northwestern limited them to 4-of-17 shooting (24 percent) on 3-pointers and 21-of-48 (44 percent) from the field overall.
After the game ended, Northwestern coach Chris Collins gave a really interesting postgame press conference. In more detail than is typical for a major college coach, he explained a lot of his plan for slowing down Maryland's offense.
Maryland's slashing and shooting ability forces a tough choice on defense.
When these teams met in Evanston a few weeks ago, the Wildcats felt that Melo Trimble and Rasheed Sulaimon had sliced them into oblivion. In response, as that first meeting wore on, they tried to force Maryland into 3-point shots over a tightly packed zone defense. They took the same approach on Tuesday, and it largely worked.
After Tuesday's game, I asked Collins if the best approach against Maryland isn't just to pack in the defense and force Maryland to make it rain triples over a zone defense.
"It's tough. You have to pick your poison with any great team," Collins said. "That was what we thought, with their size. We wanted to try to protect the paint. Last game, Rasheed and Melo just diced us up with their penetration, and they got in the open floor a lot. We turned it over a lot in the last game, and they got a lot of fastbreak points, which led to open threes, and we just didn't play as well defensively as we did tonight."
Make Melo Trimble work for everything he gets.
Collins didn't strictly play a zone. A couple of Maryland players remarked after the game how challenging it was to read whether Northwestern would play zone or man-to-man defense on any given possession.
For Northwestern, that was a part of the plan in dealing with Trimble specifically. The sophomore wound up with 18 points, but on an un-Trimble-like 8-of-18 shooting. It was fine enough, but it wasn't Melo anywhere near his best.
"We played a little bit of a matchup zone," Collins said when asked about his Trimble strategy. "I thought they did a good job of getting into their pick-and-roll game. He's just a tough guy to guard because he's got so many weapons. I think that he's passing really well. He presents so many problems when he gets around you, and he's so shifty. If you put too many guys on him, he's going to hit Rasheed, he's going to hit Jake (Layman), he's going to hit Diamond (Stone), he's going to Robert (Carter Jr.). He's a tough cover, especially with all the weapons he has now. We're not going to shut him out. He's too good of a player. But the fact that it took him 18 shots to get to 18 points is good."
Limiting Maryland on the break is pivotal.
"First of all, we got back. They had very few fastbreak points, maybe a couple," Collins said. (Zero, actually.) "But we were able to get back and set our defense and kind of keep them in front of us."
Live with jumpers – even against an elite shooting team.
Maryland entered the night No. 4 in the country in effective field goal percentage. Collins decided to chance it, leaving Maryland to shoot reasonably open jumpers in lieu of allowing Carter and Stone to have their way around the basket.
This worked reasonably well. The two Maryland bigs combined for six made field goals, and Maryland shot 44 percent from the field.
"Some nights, they're good players, they're still going to hit. But against a great team, you kind of have to pick your poison, what you want to do," Collins said. "For us, we were going to live with some long jump shots, and we hoped that they didn't make them. Fortunately for us, tonight, they didn't make them."
The Wildcats had a plan in place to stop Maryland's offense, and it mostly worked. That Maryland still figured out a way to win the game is impressive, but other teams now have helpful film to use against them.