The celebration swirled around him in the cramped locker room at the Nationwide Arena early Friday night. Pockets of reporters moved from one Maryland player to another, seeking out those who had a hand in the team’s 65-62 win over Valparaiso in the NCAA tournament Round of 64.
A few asked junior forward Jake Layman for comment, not as much for what he had done but what he had watched.
In this case, Layman knew that the Terps had survived their opening game despite foul trouble that caused him to sit for long stretches, perhaps the longest the last 68 seconds after he had fouled out.
Layman also knew he had to make more of a contribution for fourth-seeded Maryland (28-6) to keep playing this season. He will get that chance tonight, when the Terps play fifth-seeded West Virginia (24-9) for the right to face top-seeded, top-ranked and unbeaten Kentucky in Thursday’s Sweet 16 in Cleveland.
More than redemption, Layman looked at the game against the Mountaineers as a chance to get revived from what has been a bit of a late-season slump. After averaging just under 15 points and nearly seven rebounds a game over Maryland’s first 20 games, Layman has averaged just under 11 points and a little over five rebounds since.
“Definitely, I think this game is kind of suited to me,” Layman said, referring to West Virginia’s relentless fullcourt defense that could lead to a more wide-open game if the Terps are successful in breaking the press. “I need to be more aggressive, especially against that press.”
One of the best games Layman has played in three seasons at Maryland came against Oklahoma State, which pressed the Terps from the start. With the Terps playing without senior guard Dez Wells, who was sidelined with a fractured wrist, Layman finished with what were then career-highs of 21 points and 11 rebounds.
A key moment in that Dec. 21 game came when freshman point guard Melo Trimble broke the press and got the ball to Layman, who flew down the lane for a tomahawk dunk over Cowboys star forward Le’Bryan Nash. Layman punctuated the play with a rare primal scream.
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said he thinks that West Virginia’s similar style could help bring a more aggressive Layman back into play.
“I think it should,” Turgeon said Saturday. “I think he’s going to have some open looks, with our ability to drive the ball because they double the ball a lot in the backcourt and in the frontcourt. Hopefully he’s a big part of it. We need Jake to score tomorrow night for us to be successful.”
The opposite seemed to be the case against Valparaiso, which seemed content to sit back in a zone for most of the night. Even before the Crusaders did that, Layman appeared out of sorts, picking up his first personal less than 2 ½ minutes into the game.
It set the pattern for the rest of the night. Every time Layman came in, he made a play here or there, getting a rebound or helping make a defensive stop. His offensive game, much like it was in Maryland’s loss to Michigan State in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament in Chicago, seemed to be an afterthought.
Layman never got into a rhythm, finishing with just four points – all from the free throw line – and being credited with taking one shot from the field, a late 3-pointer that missed. Wells turned it into a critical 3-point play for Maryland’s final points.
“The foul trouble definitely hurt me tonight, but it’s hard to be aggressive against a zone when you’re playing on the perimeter as well,” Layman said. “That’s when you have to try to affect the game in other ways and I thought I did that rebounding and defensively,”
Not so coincidently, the drop-off came after Wells returned. As Wells got healthier and more assertive, giving the Terps a dominant backcourt with Trimble, Layman seemed to defer more and be satisfied being a facilitator rather than a finisher.
“I think maybe the past couple of years my offense has affected my defense,” Layman said Friday. “Over the years, I matured and realized that you couldn’t let that happen.”
His teammates have not lost confidence in Layman, seeing what he does in practice and what he did earlier in the season on a more regular basis. That he took just one shot was something the Terps didn’t seem to think, or even worry, about.
“We let Jake be who he is on the court,” Wells said Saturday. “That’s what has allowed him to elevate his game at times, but we just tell Jake to be who he is, each and every day, and each and every practice and every time he steps on the court to compete with us. Jake is confident. He’ll be back. He’ll be ready to play.”
If he isn’t, a trip to Cleveland and a matchup with Kentucky is probably not going to happen.