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Maryland showing more commitment to defense through two games

Dez Wells (44), Jon Graham and the Terps have looked better overall on defense this season.
Dez Wells (44), Jon Graham and the Terps have looked better overall on defense this season. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun)

COLLEGE PARK — A year ago, the Maryland men's basketball team's defense was often a sieve.

Without the threat of a shotblocker after the departure of Alex Len to the NBA — and with a combination of perimeter players who weren't as committed to the defensive — the Terps fell from 11th in field goal percentage defense nationally in 2012-13 to 82nd.

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That contributed significantly to Maryland's disappointing 17-15 record.

While it might be too soon to get an accurate read on how improved Maryland is at the defensive end this season, the early signs have been positive. Except for giving up too many offensive rebounds, the Terps have stifled their competition in the first two games.

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"I think, especially our freshmen, they've come a long way since we started with defense," junior forward Jake Layman said Wednesday. "Learning our principles, them understanding what we want to do on defense has really helped us. ... I think we're further than coach thought at this point."

Coach Mark Turgeon believes the 2-0 Terps can be even better defensively, and they'll need to be as the competition gets tougher. That begins to happen Thursday night, when Fordham (1-1) visits Xfinity Center. An Atlantic 10 team, the Rams should be a stiffer test than Wagner (whom the Terps beat 82-48) and Central Connecticut State (93-57).

"I know our numbers look good, but we got to play better defensively as our competition gets better," Turgeon said.

Maryland's first two opponents have combined to shoot a little over 31 percent from the field (41 of 132) and a shade over 21 percent from 3-point range (8 of 38). A year ago, Maryland's opponents shot 41.7 percent from the field, 34.2 percent on 3-pointers.

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Among Big Ten teams, Maryland is tied with Wisconsin for first in 3-point field goal percent defense, third in blocked shots (7.5 per game) and fifth in overall field goal defense. Turgeon seems satisfied with effort his team is giving. He also believes there is room to improve.

"I'm not trying to kill our defense, but I also don't want our guys to think we're in great shape," said Turgeon, whose teams at Wichita State and Texas A&M were know for playing tenacious defense. "We have potential.

"We have more depth than we've had in a while, even without Evan [Smotrycz, who is out with a broken foot]. So we've been able to keep guys fresh. We have a chance to be a really good defensive team, I don't think there's any question about it."

Unlike last season, the Terps are closing out quicker on outside shooters, showing more effectively on ball screens, switching when needed and converging to cover in case one of their teammates has a defensive lapse.

Senior forward Jon Graham said it is not an accident.

"This team is different. Right from the start, we've wanted to create an identity on the defensive end — defending and rebounding," said Graham, one of the few Terps who played consistent defense last season. "So far we've done a good job with it."

The improvement is also noticeable on an individual basis.

Layman, who appears to be more comfortable as a power forward than at small forward, has made as sizable a jump defensively as he has offensively. The 6-foot-9 junior is moving a lot better laterally and is playing with more aggression and confidence.

"I feel right now I can guard anybody," Layman said. "In the offseason, it was me guarding Dez [Wells] all summer, which really helped me. Then guarding Robert Carter [a transfer forward from Georgia Tech who is sitting out] has really helped me too with guarding the [power forward]."

Wells, the senior guard, has become more active, partly the result of being leaner and quicker after losing 20 pounds and more than 10 percent body fat.

The presence of two potential shotblockers in 6-11 sophomore Damonte Dodd and 7-1 freshman Michal Cekovsky — a huge step up from a year ago when Dodd was a part-time player behind Shaquille Cleare and Charles Mitchell — has made Maryland's first two opponents wary when going inside.

Then there's the influx of backcourt players who willing defenders, in particular freshman guards Melo Trimble and Dion Wiley, as well as senior transfer Richaud Pack, who might eventually become one of the team's best shutdown defenders.

Graham said the difference in defense starts with the mental toughness this year's team takes to practice.

"It's something we talk about all the time in practice and we continue to work on," Graham said. "We've been doing a good job of that, but we just continue to to get better. ... It starts with being physical. Rebounding is a physical [part of the] game. You've got to be tougher than your opponent."

The competition will get ramped up again next week, when the Terps play in the CBE Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City against Arizona State on Monday and either Iowa State or Alabama on Tuesday.

Layman knows there will be more pressure put on Maryland defensively.

"I think one thing we have to work on is [not] having that little bit of slippage, letting them get wide open shots," he said. "Against teams like Arizona State and Iowa State, they're not going to miss those shots."

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