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As tournament play nears, No. 9 Maryland men’s basketball looking to become a 'defensive pest’ again

Michigan State's Xavier Tillman Sr. (23) has his shot blocked by Maryland's Jalen Smith (25) during the first half Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, in College Park.
Michigan State's Xavier Tillman Sr. (23) has his shot blocked by Maryland's Jalen Smith (25) during the first half Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, in College Park. (Terrance Williams/AP)

COLLEGE PARK — Michigan State guard Cassius Winston grabbed the inbounds pass with 1.9 seconds left in the first half of Saturday night’s game against Maryland, looking for one last chance to score before the break.

Senior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. stepped toward Winston and extended his arm in Winston’s path before moving out of his way. Winston proceeded to hoist a shot from 50 feet that swished through the net as the buzzer went off, giving the Spartans a 40-29 halftime lead and leaving the soldout Xfinity Center crowd exasperated.

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The shot, as improbable as it was, might have been a microcosm of Maryland’s defense over the past week: a lackluster effort at times, and teams hitting shots, some more fortunate than others.

In Maryland’s past three games, against Ohio State, Minnesota and Michigan State, the Terps are allowing almost 77 points per game. It’s a drastic change from the 66.5 points per game they normally allow in conference play, which ranks sixth best in the Big Ten.

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“The last three games, 78, 79, and 73. That’s not us,” coach Mark Turgeon said Monday after the team’s practice. “We’ve got to try to guard better. We’ve got to do the best we can. Our transition hasn’t been as good, our ball-screen defense hasn’t been as good and our rebounding hasn’t been as good. Late in the game against Minnesota, we guarded, we competed. So we’ve got to do it for 40 minutes.”

Teams have particularly had success hitting outside shots against Maryland, and at the beginning of games, as the ninth-ranked Terps found themselves in double-digit deficits in each of their past three games.

In the past week, Maryland’s opponents have shot a combined 41.5% from the 3-point line. The Terps have defended outside shots well this season, allowing teams to shoot 32% from deep in conference play, the third best mark in the Big Ten.

What Turgeon is hoping to see from his group is the type of effort the Terps displayed late against Minnesota, when they forced five turnovers in the game’s final 10 minutes and outscored the Gophers 24-11 to complete a 17-point comeback.

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Sophomore forward Jalen Smith said the team’s focus during Monday’s practice was on returning to their strict defensive philosophies.

“We just weren’t flying around as we normally did,” Smith said. “That’s one of our main principles, is to fly around and pick up a man. Even in transition, if you don’t have a man, find a man. And just making sure that we box out and get the defensive rebound and don’t allow any second attempts.”

Turgeon noted that at this point, with a taxing 30-plus-game regular season coming to a close, there are fewer practices available to make corrections.

“At this time of year, guys should know,” Turgeon said. “They should know how to box out, they should know how to guard ball screens, they should know how to rotate. And we’ve done it all year.”

Turgeon has also been quick to dole out credit to the team’s opponents for hitting tough shots, adding that many of them have come from players the team didn’t anticipate making outside shots.

“Everybody’s playing out of their mind against us,” Turgeon said of the team’s opponents this season.

Turgeon’s last assertion might be the theme of college basketball in the coming weeks, as the Terps ready themselves for the Big Ten tournament and, eventually, their second straight trip to the NCAA tournament.

As the calendar turns to March, Maryland will only get the best effort from its remaining opponents. And tournament play often shows one that all it takes is one game, or even one half, for a team to make shots and end an opponent’s promising season.

“That’s one of our identities as a team, just being a defensive pest,” Smith said.

No. 9 Maryland@Rutgers

Tuesday, 7 p.m.

TV: BTN

Radio: 105.7 FM, 980 AM

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