For the first five games of the 2019-20 season, the Maryland men’s basketball team appeared a little bored, playing down to the competition at times while showing off enough talent on offense and versatility on defense to ease its way to a string of one-sided victories.
It slowly started to change last week at the Orlando Invitational in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, first after overcoming a 9-0 hole and an 11-point deficit in a seven-point win over Harvard on Thanksgiving Day, and again the following afternoon during another seven-point victory over Temple.
Then it ratcheted up last Sunday against Marquette in the championship game at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex — especially on the defensive end. Junior guard Darryl Morsell shut down senior Markus Howard, the nation’s leading scorer, holding him to just six points on 1-for-12 shooting.
The rest of the Terps followed Morsell’s lead in Wednesday’s 72-51 home win over Notre Dame in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. More significant than the dunk by sophomore Aaron Wiggins — which became the No. 1 play on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” that night — was Maryland’s suffocating man-to-man defense.
“I feel it’s starting to become our identity,” sophomore guard Eric Ayala said. “We lock in defensively, our offense feeds off of that. We get out in transition and make plays. It’s fun, when we can turn it on like that. Everyone’s just into it on the defensive end.”
Comparing the game with the “varsity against the JV,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey pointed to Maryland’s defense as the linchpin to the Terps turning an ugly start offensively for both teams into a 32-20 halftime lead — the last two points on the dunk by Wiggins off his own 3-point miss right before the buzzer — and eventually a 25-point lead in the second half.
How did Brey explain his team getting just 20 points by halftime and not even reaching 40 until there was just under seven minutes left?
“They kind of smothered us,” Brey said. “I don’t think it was us missing shots. We didn’t get many clean looks. How many shots did they block tonight? . They’re long, they switch stuff. They take up space. They remind me a little bit of Virginia Tech last year where they’re all big, about the same size. They’re really gifted defensively. It almost demoralizes you playing against that.”
Said one longtime NBA scout, “It the best defense I’ve seen by any team in the country this season — by far.”
Going into Saturday’s Big Ten opener at home against Illinois, Maryland has moved from No. 7 in the preseason rankings to No. 3 and is suddenly being talked about as a legitimate Final Four contender. As much as it has to do with the talent and depth, it also has to do with the team’s newfound commitment to defense.
Asked how much of the team’s identity has been forged on the defensive end, Morsell said Wednesday: “It’s everything. It’s what we harp on all the time. It gets our offense going. And it’s something we pride ourselves in. Me, personally I pride myself on defense. Me, Anthony [Cowan Jr.], us being kind of the two veteran guys, we try to pass it down to the younger guys.”
Turgeon thinks he will get a better idea when Illinois, which features one of the country’s best guards in sophomore Ayo Dosunmu, an All-Big Ten preseason selection, as well as a pair of big men in 7-foot, 290-pound freshman Kofi Cockburn and 6-9, 235-pound sophomore Giorgi Bezhanishvili, come to Xfinity Center.
“It’ll be a different challenge on Saturday,” Turgeon said after the Notre Dame game. “Because you have two big kids who can really play and tonight [Notre Dame] didn’t really have a low-post game. It’s a different game. How quickly can we adjust and do things that way. That will be the sign of the team we can be defensively by playing against different styles.”
Changing defenses continually from game-to-game for the first time since Turgeon came to Maryland in 2011 — using a variety of zones and presses to go along with his traditional man-to-man — the Terps have improved in nearly every defensive category from last season.
Some of the improvements have been slight, such as opponents’ scoring average (61.1 this season compared with 65.5 in 2018-19) and field goal percentage allowed (.365 to .397), to more noticeable things such as turnovers forced (14.8 to 9.35). The Terps ranked 14th in field goal defense and 18th in blocks per game (5.8).
Among Big Ten teams, Maryland ranks first in blocked shots — helped by the 10 the Terps had against Notre Dame, half of them coming from sophomore forward Jalen Smith to tie his career-high — total rebounds and, surprisingly, turnover margin. They also rank second in field-goal defense and third in scoring defense.
Asked why Maryland has improved so much, Ayala said: “We’ve got a year under our belt and we know where to be in the right spots. Coach trusts us to fly around, we can switch a lot now because we’re more experienced.”
“We really worked hard on guarding the ball over the summer,” Turgeon said Wednesday. “You see it. Eric Ayala is twice the defender he was. Aaron Wiggins has become a phenomenal defender, guarding the ball, communicating, rebounding. We’re comfortable enough to switch ‘Stix’ [Jalen Smith] on a guard in a ball screen.
“I think it’s the communication. I think we’re much tougher than we were last year. We could get pushed around pretty good last year, now we’re a much more physical team. Not just our starters, but our guys coming off the bench. That all gives you confidence. Our guys believe in each other. It’s early. We’re just getting started. But they get a little bit better every game, so it’s great.”
Turgeon believes this team — which is hoping to add Chol Marial, a 7-2 freshman center with an 8-foot wingspan, later in the month — is built more for defense than any of his previous teams at Maryland.
“We’ve got length, we’ve got quickness, we’ve got a lot of good defenders, we’ve got rim defenders,” he said. “We just talk about certain things that will help us be successful as the year goes on. It gives us a chance to be a great team if we guard like that. But we have to do it every night and we have to do against great teams too.”
Morsell goes back to the mantra he has carried with him since his high school career at Mount Saint Joseph.
“I’ve always said defense wins championships,” Morsell said. “That’s our main focus.”