During yesterday’s game win against Notre Dame, one thing that stood out to me as being particularly notable was how quickly the Terps began to struggle as soon as Notre Dame switched to a zone. The Terps started the game off by going up 10-4 in the first four minutes and looked like they had taken steroids shortly before tip-off, and at around the 17 minute mark, the Fighting Irish switched to a zone defense to slow down the pace. What resulted afterwards was like when your older brother stomped on your Legos Star Wars Podracer; tears and a big mess.
Turnover, Notre Dame hits a transition three, Seth Allen misses a deep three, Evan Smotrycz misses a deep three, Jake Layman misses a corner three, Dez Wells misses a three…you get the point. Maryland tried to show off their three point shooting acumen and bust the zone, and ended up performing worse than that awkward time Jean Claude Van Damme showed up on Friends. The Terps were stuck on 12 total points scored until the 10 minute mark in the first half. They scored eight points in eight minutes, and Notre Dame or the referees clearly put the game setting on “2002 Terps” during that span.
The first half ended with the Terps on a 5-0 run to trim the lead to nine fortunately, but it wasn’t until the second half that Maryland as a team finally showed some semblance of skill. There were two key things that occurred on both the offensive and defensive ends that stymied Notre Dame and allowed Maryland to win.
1.) Nick Faust started guarding Pat Connaughton
This is the biggest one for me, easily. Connaughton had 19 points on the night, but the Terps held him to four points in the second half. How do you plug up a leaky defense? Apply Nick Faust. For all his lumps offensively at times, Faust is the best defender on the team, period. His play against Connaughton was nothing short of near perfect, and the game film will provide us with that. Kudos to Turgeon for ensuring that happened, and more props to Faust for actually doing it.
In the first half, Connaughton treated Jake Layman like a rag doll around the perimeter. He got to the rim at will, moved around double screens down low to pop out up top and drain threes, and otherwise abused the defense. Then Nick Faust strapped him up tightly the entire second half.
“In the first half I started out on Eric Jenkins and in the second half I played, what’s his name? Pat Connaughton so I think I held him to what, four points? So yeah, I think that helped,” Nick Faust said after the game.
First: such a Faustian quote. Second: that’s why I love Nick Faust. He knew exactly who he was being asked to guard, and he knew exactly how many points he held that dude to. That’s his attitude. All of Connaughton’s points came off jumpers or threes in the first half, but in the second? Nothing. Faust fought through screens, picks, anything Notre Dame threw at him to stop Connaughton from getting open looks. And when he drove the lane? Faust delayed him enough so the help could slide over to contest his layups. That’s what good defenders do; they may not stop you all the time, but they will frustrate you.
Doing that simple task of guarding Connaughton forced Notre Dame to find other hot hands, or give the ball to Garrick Sherman way too much and just let him screw things up himself. Sherman had 18 points, but also six turnovers and missed all his FT attempts. It also gave Maryland a chance to do what they do best: rebound and get out in transition to get more possessions. On possessions: the Terps need as many of those as they can get to mitigate the fact that they’re not great at shooting most of the time and can’t finish at the rim well. If you try to fit the square peg into the round hole enough times, it’ll eventually get shaved down enough and go in. That’s what Maryland needs all the time.
2.) Rather than shoot threes, they all attacked the basket
There’s more than one way to skin a cat/crack a nut/any phrase your grandpa used back in the day, and there’s more than one way to beat the zone. Yes, you could use long range bunker busters and open things up if your shot is falling. For Maryland, a lot of times that’s a rarity. The other way is to use your big men to both A) attack the basket and collapse the defense and B) facilitate to others who can do the exact same thing for you.
Maryland has a very unlikable tendency to ignore their big men under any condition. Even Turgeon admitted in the press conference that Layman just flat out missed Shaquille Cleare down low (wide open) for about ten seconds before giving him the ball. But in the second half, the methodology was super simple. Either get out in transition before the defense gets set and attack the basket (our first points in the second half were a direct result of Seth Allen doing that), or give it to the big men and let the defense collapse to open things up.
And by golly, it worked!
Seriously, Maryland got back into the game because they only attempted 10 of their 26 three pointers in the second half. Ten. They didn’t even shoot that well to begin with, but the fact that they attacked the basket nonstop and tried to draw contact was the biggest difference. You don’t have to shoot well to play well. Corey Maggettee made a career out of it. Charles Mitchell knows full well that if he stays down low and keeps attempting high percentage shots like layups and hooks, hes going to score a lot of points. It works.
Dez Wells could do what he did in the second half (force guys to foul him) every game against anyone. Why he doesn’t is a mystery to me, but Turgeon constantly says to him “We need you to play better than that,” after the first half. Why? Because if he doesn’t use his athleticism for good, then this team becomes as fun to watch as microwaving CDs; temporarily awesome until you realize you’ve just burnt the Marshall Mathers LP to smithereens. With Wells playing like that, the onus to hit threes doesn’t exist. There’s no pressure for Layman or Smotrycz to get hot, and I really do think they play better without that pressure.
And of course, the big men did their part. Cleare did a fantastic job finding open shooters and being slightly more aggressive in wanting the ball. His seven points and two rebounds are deceptive, because when you play unselfish basketball that’s what happens. Cleare demanding the ball down low allows Maryland to open things up, because he’s a capable passer who also happens to be the tallest guy on the court. He has a better vantage point than anyone else.
That’s most of what I saw in the second half. A concerted effort to get to the line and game the system, so to speak. The Terps can beat a zone most of the time because they’re athletic enough to draw contact the majority of times they drive, or get into transition and attack the rim before the defense can get set. They’re not pros, and they will make mistakes defensively. It was just nice to see them do all this for once.