Ed. note: In the days leading up to the Boston College game and conference play, I’m going to break down what’s wrong with this team and what they need to do to improve. This is the first part, so I apologize for the introductory jabber, but groundwork has to be laid. If you already know this team has problems and want to see the first issue broken down, head about halfway down. Thanks for reading!
There’s no other way around it right now, the Maryland Terrapins are struggling. Two straight losses to their out of conference schedule, including an unexpected heartbreaker to George Washington University at the BB&T Classic have folks in Maryland wondering whether a tournament berth is a remote possibility at this point. More importantly, they’re trying to figure out exactly who to blame for this mess.
A lot of the blame right now is falling squarely on Mark Turgeon and his staff. The team appears to have regressed from last season and they’ve come out flat quite a few times this year; particularly their last game. Their first half to second half scoring margin is startling. They’re averaging eight more points in the second (40) than they are in the first (32), so while Turgeon’s clearly making halftime adjustments, the poor starts are damning the team. It’s hard not to wonder about his preparation this year with those kind of numbers.
But the roster itself (which, granted, Turgeon’s assembled) ought to merit a look over as well. The only point guard on the active roster is a freshman, and the departures of Alex Len and Pe’Shon Howard are causing more of an issue than some thought to start the season. In particular, none of the big men on the squad are incapable of properly defending the paint. Len’s replacement, Shaquille Cleare, is not producing the numbers that were initially supposed to surface from more minutes; Charles Mitchell is undersized and a liability at both the free throw line and as a post defender; Evan Smotrycz is a tad slow for anyone’s liking; Damonte Dodd is as raw as they come. Defensive rebounding, last year’s specialty, has taken a blow this season as the team is slightly below that average.
But the point guard play, which was a problem last season, is just as frustrating now. Pe’Shon left, and the staff was unable to pick up a transfer point guard, so they essentially lost key statistics while bringing in unproven commodities (five-stars are still freshmen). A committee of Dez Wells, Varun Ram, and Roddy Peters hasn’t produced much success to this point, and losing Seth Allen definitely hurt the team; that much is evident. The turnover rates are lowered, but the offense does not look very cohesive. Wells stats are down almost across the board as he’s asked go play a position outside of his natural one. Peters, meanwhile, is playing decently but doesn’t seem fully prepared to become an everyday starter. And Ram, well, any contribution is nice, but he is far from the answer. Starting him isn’t an option, as evidenced by his two quick fouls to start the game against George Washington, which resulted in him heading to the bench very fast. He wasn’t even going up against a top tier point guard; it’d be even worse against someone like Quinn Cook.
In many ways, the statistics don’t do a ton of justice to this team; they’re losing games by an average of 6.5 points. If you take out that Ohio State game, they’re losing games by a meager 3.3 points. That margin of defeat, by any team’s standards, is razor thin and is more indicative of “basketball being basketball” (where the bounces don’t go your way sometimes) than a major problem that suggests the team needs a massive revamping. This Maryland team has had one blowout loss; the rest are legitimate close games that at least say they’re playing with their opponents. But they have to at least be winning some of these games eventually if they want to justify their preseason hype, so why are they losing?
Examining Maryland’s Slow Starts
I’ve said that Maryland has gotten off to some extremely slow starts (against George Washington, and to a lesser extent Ohio State and Connecticut) and there’s actually a pretty simple explanation to it: the personnel on the court. Two of the Terps starters and primary scorers, Layman and Smotrycz, are primarily jump shooters. Right off the bat, you can bet that these two are going to start shooting, which makes sense as it’s the strongest attribute of either of their games. Unfortunately, when those shots aren’t falling, points aren’t going onto the board and Maryland stands a chance of going down early because these two are testing whether or not their shots are on. Even when the looks are clean, if the shots aren’t going in, there won’t be points scored. This is doubly important because jump shooters are rarely sent to the line for extra potential points off a missed shot, and Maryland’s offense will stagnate as a result.
Against George Washington, Maryland took 30 shots in the first half. 33% of those attempts were by both Layman and Smo. Smotrycz finished the first half 2/5, while Layman finished 1/5. That’s 33% of the offense that did nothing with their offensive possessions because, as luck would have it, their shots weren’t going in. That doesn’t mean they aren’t quality looks, it’s just a fact of life when you have two jump shooters as your primary scoring options.
Since I’ve watched Layman play basketball, one thing stands out about him: every single game, he will go in with this same mentality. He tests his shot out a bunch, and if it’s working he’ll continue to shoot, or if it isn’t working he won’t attack the basket for an easier look until the second half or it’s too late. His first half against Virginia Tech last year was scorching, but he kept shooting and scored zero points in the second half. That’s normal for a jump shooter, but it’s always going to be tough going for the Terps if he can’t find his shot early. Layman’s tendency to settle for early jumpers (which are inherently a lower percentage shot by even the best shooters) limits his potential impact on the game. He won’t get to the line (which he can) and he won’t be taking shots that have a much higher percentage of going in.
Now, from one minute remaining in the first half to the end of the game, Layman adjusted his play and took five layups, resulting in six points and three trips to the foul line (where he converted two of three shots). Layman was drastically more effective specifically because he wasn’t just settling for jumpers; it’s okay to take them, but starting the game shooting strictly J’s isn’t going to do much for the team. He has the ability to do it, but even if the look is good further from the basket, it might behoove him to drive inside for an easier look and some potential contact. Until he can come with that aggressiveness (and consistently hit the shots he should be making) from the get-go, he’s going to be a major contributor to the team’s slow starts.
With Smotrycz, he shot 2-of-9 for the game, but he also got to the line enough that he more than made up for that performance. Smotrycz shot wasn’t falling but he attempted six free throws to end up with 11 points. He’s nowhere near the athlete that Layman is, but he recognizes that you have to intersperse your jump shooting with at least some variety in order to remain an effective offensive option the entire game. His problem stems from early turnovers. He tries to do too much in the offense as if he’s trying to have a big game, and turns the ball over at a detrimental clip; his three turnovers in the first half of GW are an example. It was only when Faust assumed the role he should be in all along of the slasher that handles the ball and gets to the basket, that Smotrycz didn’t have to play so aggressively when no one else would.
Then, of course, there’s Nick Faust. Faust took 4 of those 30 first half attempts, and every single one of those was a jumper or three point attempt (he had one layup that got him to the line for two points as well). When you combine Faust, Smotrycz, and Layman, they account for just under 50% of the first half shots; most of those were lower percentage jump shots and three pointers, and they didn’t go in. Faust is frustrating because even though his four attempts were wide open looks, they were bad looks because this team doesn’t (or shouldn’t) want Faust taking many three point shots, if any. His career percentage is a meager 27%, and that’s not who you want taking your triples.
Faust is far, far more effective as an aggressor. Despite the occasional errant layup off a drive, Faust is very skilled at drawing contact and converting layups. That’s mostly why Mark Turgeon wants to bring him in off the bench, because Faust, Wells, and Charles Mitchell (two guys who scores a lot down low) will have a hard time coexisting on the same basketball court without it being one dimensional. But Faust shouldn’t be coming off the bench hoping to hit jumpers; he should be coming off the bench and attacking the rack while being the head man in the offense, even when he’s getting good looks.
Again, almost 50% of the offense in the first half is shooting jumpers whether they go in or not. It’s why you start to see someone like Dez Wells try to “take over” by going end-to-end and converting a layup when no one else will, or even getting to the basket when everyone else is just looking to shoot jumpers. It’s why he’s so important to the team; he and Smotrycz are the only ones that do it with any regularity. They score when the jump shooters aren’t hitting their shots and help pace the team. Previously it was Len and Wells, but now it’s Wells and Smotrycz. It should be Wells and Faust, with the occasional Smotrycz
Fixing the slow starts
No one wants to hear it, but for Layman’s sake, this is just part of the maturation process. Layman is often compared to Chandler Parsons, and that guy didn’t figure out how to get to the line to free up his three point shot until his junior season at Florida. Before that? He was a guy who could just shoot three pointers and rebound effectively. Layman is already a better rebounder, and he’s probably a better scorer at this point, so I do think he will eventually have an ah-ha moment this season. Still, he needs time to figure that out, and it remains to be seen how long that will take. Mark Turgeon should probably be doing a better job of driving that message home.
Nick Faust has regressed, but he needs to regress back to the Nick Faust of 2012 before moving forward again. He’s not a three point shooter, and while his average will probably go up and he might make an occasional three, that isn’t his game. Maryland needs a guy who can get to the basket, collapse defenders, and get to the line. They have one in Wells, but they need another. If Faust is a jump shooter, he’s a pretty useless commodity for this team.
For Smotrycz, it’s clear he’s trying to take charge of the offense when the team needs him, but unfortunately that’s not the kind of player he is. Smotrycz shouldn’t have to fill in the role of facilitator, three point specialist, and guy who gets to the line; if he does try that role, he’s going to suffer. One of those responsibilities has to fall to Faust, period. It lightens the load, and more importantly lightens his usage rate to a level that allows him to be productive.
Finally, you’ll note that I don’t place a lot of blame on Dez Wells. That’s mostly because it’s hard to. He’s being asked by Turgeon (right or wrong) to play point guard, and if you see the open looks this team is getting, it’s hard to say he’s doing that terrible a job. The players just aren’t knocking down the shots. Wells isn’t playing aggressively because the point guard isn’t supposed to do that in this offense. Wells only breaks character when the team pretty much needs it; like cutting the lead back to single digits twice in the first half, then getting them within six in the second). His turnover rates are down to under 2/game, he’s shooting 47% from the floor, and he’s rebounding well over the last five games. I’m not going to say he shouldn’t be more aggressive because he shouldn’t have to be; other plays need to execute. His assist numbers would be even higher if the Terps actually hit their shots.
In short, a lot of this is on the player’s decision making. At least for the first half starts, Mark Turgeon has got to do a better job of teaching these kids their roles and having them adjust earlier rather than tinkering with lineups. I’m not a coach, though. It’s easy for me to say this is how you cure it from the outside, but the nuances of coaching are much different than my job. I’m hesitant to lay blame on him fully because what I’m seeing is a lack of execution, not so much a team just giving up like the Redskins.