With the Maryland Terrapins basketball season officially underway after their blowout victory against Division II San Francisco State, it’s probably time to tackle a question everyone has been wondering for awhile now: can this small ball strategy work?
Even against a vastly inferior opponent, Maryland’s issues in the post managed to rear it’s head. Damonte Dodd and Michal Cekovsky had their bright moments (passes from the high post, five blocks from Dodd), but they struggled to grab rebounds and didn’t necessarily instill a lot of confience along the way. This begs the question as to whether or not a team can win without utlizing a traditional big man.
For that, we probably need to take a look at the head coach: Mark Turgeon. It takes a special kind of coach to be able to tinker with his own traditions in favor of what the personnel actually suggests should be happening. What is meant by that is basically, “Why try to mash a square peg into a round hole when you could just make a square hole and everything would fit?” Coach Turgeon was known even before he ever arrived at Maryland as a guy who used big men to his advantage; changing it up isn’t going to be easy. That said, he seems to have fully embraced the idea of revamping an entire system and appears downright ecstatic about it, which is great news.
You don’t need a traditional big man to win games
In the NBA, if you don’t have a big man who can protect the rim, pull down rebounds, and play solid post defense, you’re going to have a bad time. Very few teams win without a big man that fulfills all those prerequisites. But in college basketball, teams can win in a variety of different manners, so much so that searching for those once-in-a-generation talented big men becomes an exercise in futility. You don’t really need them, and the inverse is true: With great guard and team play, it’s more than possible to make the NCAA tournament
This iteration of the Terrapins reminds me a lot of a team that I absolutely loved to watch play (though perhaps a watered down version): the 2007-08 Villanova Wildcats.
For those who don’t remember, here’s a refresher on the lineup that team trotted out:
|15.9 Pts, 3.1 Reb, 3.2 Ast
|10.4 Pts, 6.5 Reb, 1.1 Ast
|9.1 Pts, 1.8 Reb, 2.7 Ast
|7.1 Pts, 4.3 Reb, 1.1 Ast
|6.9 Pts, 4.3 Reb, 1.0 Ast
|6.5 Pts, 4.8 Reb, 0.9 Ast
|6.4 Pts, 2.4 Reb, 0.5 Ast
|5.6 Pts, 0.8 Reb, 1.4 Ast
|4.9 Pts, 4.5 Reb, 0.4 Ast
|4.6 Pts, 2.6 Reb, 1.7 Ast
|0.8 Pts, 1.3 Reb, 0.0 Ast
|0.3 Pts, 0.7 Reb, 0.0 Ast
|0.0 Pts, 0.2 Reb, 0.2 Ast
I loved watching this Wildcats team for so many reasons (not because Dante Cunningham was friends with my neighbor or because Jason Colenda was my classmate in high school), but mostly because they knew their flaws and just didn’t care. That Wildcats team won 22 games on the season and they didn’t have anything close to a traditional big man.
When they won, most games their guards were just running teams off the court. Teams literally could not keep up with their speed or ball movement, so they had to dig deep into their benches to find guards to keep up. When they lost, it was almost always against a team with a tall front court that slowed the pace down and used size to their advantage. I recall a specific game against Georgetown in the (old) Big East conference tournament where the Wildcats lost by 20 because Roy Hibbert and DaJuan Summers abused them in the post with that Princeton offense. And again when they played Syracuse as Onuaku and Donte Green steamrolled them in the post.
But whenever the Wildcats played teams that didn’t have borderline NBA big men? They usually pummeled them with a heavy dose of Scottie Reynolds, Dante Cunningham kind of protecting the rim, and the rest of the younger guards (mainly Corey Stokes and Corey Fisher) chipping in a little offensively. It was truly a solid overall, undersized (but not a spectacular one) team that made the tournament.
That team brought in one McDonald’s All-American guard, and another that was pretty close (much like Maryland), but they did not have a big man. Maryland may only have Damonte Dodd, Smotrycz, Graham, and Cekovsky, but the cupboard isn’t bare with Trimble, Wiley, Pack, Wells, Layman, and Nickens. Not even close.
You don’t need big men, but you need to do a couple things well
As fans, our constant desire is for perfection. We want our teams to be the best rebounding, best shot blocking, best three point shooting teams in the nation, even though those expectations are unattainable. The reality is that most teams that make the tournament have plenty of flaws, but they mask them well by being good at complementary things.
The same Wildcats team we brought up earlier was horrible at shooting; their guards were volume scorers, and as a team they shot 217th nationally in field goal percentage. They weren’t even good three point shooters (197th nationally percentage-wise), nor were they great passers or careful with the ball (more turnovers than assist, averaged almost 15 turnovers a game).
But they were amazing at getting to the free throw line (20th in made free throws), which made up for the poor three-point shooting and negated their inability to play in a halfcourt game. They rebounded relatively well despite their size — something that’s predicated on effort and angles — at 44th nationally and used that small size to steal a ton of balls (33rd nationally), which gave them extra possessions since they were very inefficient shooters and ball handlers themselves.
That’s the gist of it. If Maryland is going to be a poor rebounding team, then they’d better shoot high enough percentages that they don’t need extra opportunities. If the Terps are going to turn the ball over a lot, that’s fine as long as they double down on thievery themselves. If they’re going to shoot horribly, then get to that free throw line as often as possible.
It seems like Maryland is going to be horrible at some things this year, there’s no way around that with the front court they have. But with shooters like Trimble, Wiley, Layman, Smotrycz, and Nickens (whom I think may be the best combination of shooting ability and length in his class), there’s no reason they can’t pummel teams in other areas. Which brings me to my next point.
If you have no big men, you just gotta own it
The issue I think so many teams run into is that they try to play a game that doesn’t fit their personnel well. Again, there’s no reason why Maryland should even entertain going to the post too often (read: at all) when the options aren’t really there. Right now, Maryland’s got shooters that rival the regulars Duke typically trots out. When Duke had Shelden Williams and J.J. Redick, they played an inside-outside game (they eventually lost in the tournament), but when they had Kyle Singler and Jon Scheyer and Zoubek down low, they just played OK defense and lived and died by the three.
Screw the post game if you don’t have it. No question about it, Maryland might get throttled against some teams with great heigh at the four and five, but those teams are few and far between. In the meantime, there are very, very few teams that can keep up with Maryland’s guards and shooting ability. If Turgeon just decides to go all in, and accept the occasional routs that will come with the cards, this team is going to be awesome to watch. They’ll have an identity early, they’ll get a whole lot of shots, and this is a team that can make the tournament on their shooting alone.
You just have to ignore that big man issue for this year.