After losing badly at home to Pittsburgh in last year’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge, Maryland men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon was both frustrated and defiant about what many perceived as one of his team’s offensive shortcomings.
“Please zone us. Please zone us,” Turgeon said after a 73-59 loss. “We’re going to make shots. We’re going to be great against the zone. I was thrilled when he [Pittsburgh coach Kevin Stallings] went zone. Zone us. We’re going to be good. We just weren’t good tonight.”
A year later, Turgeon won’t have to dare Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim into going zone in Monday night’s Big Ten/ACC Challenge game at the Carrier Dome. Boeheim’s Orange have suffocated opponents for decades with their 2-3 zone defense.
“We prepared for the 2-3 zone in practices throughout the fall,” Turgeon said Sunday. “One of the reasons for that was in anticipation for playing Syracuse. We will have to play inside-out, make the open ones [baskets] and hopefully attack the offensive glass."
Maryland’s troubles executing against zone defenses were still evident last week, when the Terps struggled early in what turned into a 76-45 win over Jackson State on Monday night at home and often in Friday night’s 63-61 opening-round loss to St. Bonaventure in the Emerald Coast Classic.
A combination of poor 3-point shooting as well as careless ballhandling and passing contributed to Maryland’s first loss of the 2017-18 season. The Terps missed 18 of 23 3-point shots and committed 20 turnovers against the Bonnies.
While the 3-point shooting improved in Saturday’s 80-65 win over New Mexico in the consolation game of the tournament played in Niceville, Fla. — Maryland was an efficient 8-for-15 — the Terps committed a season-high 22 turnovers against the Lobos, who mostly pressed full-court before settling into a man-to-man defense.
Asked before his team left for Florida last week about its ability to execute consistently against zones to help free up big men Bruno Fernando and Michal Cekovsky inside, Turgeon said: “I think we can be a great zone team. I thought last year we could be a great zone team. We beat zones early [after losing to Pittsburgh], we didn’t late, but it wasn’t from the shots we were getting. We were getting good looks. The difference this year is that we can really offensive-rebound in a zone.”
After turning 16 offensive rebounds into 24 points against Jackson State, Maryland scored just 11 off 11 offensive rebounds against St. Bonaventure, while the Bonnies scored 13 points on the same number of second chances.
Graduate transfer Sean Obi’s 3-point play with 10:50 to go came off Maryland’s next-to-last offensive rebound during a 14-4 run that helped give the Terps a 52-44 lead. Sophomore forward Josh Ayeni (St. Frances) made two free throws with 34 seconds left off an offensive rebound to put the Bonnies ahead 60-59.
Turgeon said before the game that he was expecting St. Bonaventure to change defenses, alternating between man-to-man and a variety of zones. Afterward he said he was surprised that the Bonnies stuck with the zone, mostly using a 1-3-1, for the entire game. He knows what’s in store at Syracuse, which uses the 2-3 exclusively.
The Orange — a team with just nine scholarship players, including four freshmen and a redshirt freshman — come into Monday’s game ranked fifth in the country in field-goal-percentage defense (.339), which might be as much a byproduct of opposing teams having trouble adjusting to the depth perception in the Carrier Dome.
While Syracuse ranks 11th in scoring defense (57.6), the Orange are not that good at turning teams over. Despite not playing any teams ranked in the top 100, Syracuse has forced only 12.8 turnovers a game, tied for 253rd in the country. The Terps rank near the bottom of the 351 Division I teams with 17 turnovers a game.
“The great thing about the zone is that you can move guys around, and put them in position to be successful against a zone, and get the matchups you want,” Turgeon said last week. “I think we’re figuring that out about our team each time we practice zone [offense].”
The biggest question seems to be finding the right player to catch the ball in the high- or mid-post to either score or distribute in the middle of the zone. Redshirt junior forward Ivan Bender has been effective at times, as has sophomore guard Kevin Huerter. Turgeon has even tried freshman guard Darryl Morsell in the middle of the zone.
Bender can be a terrific passer, but he tends to try to make the same short bounce pass to another big man once too often. Huerter has the vision to distribute to open shooters on the wing, but his role in the post takes away from his own ability to hit 3-pointers. Morsell has the athleticism to elevate in traffic and score, but is turnover-prone.
“I think that’s definitely the key position [against the zone], we’re still figuring out our playmakers, where to put guys,” Huerter said last week. “Anthony [Cowan Jr.] is our point guard, but he might not run the point against the zone. It’s just finding the right combinations. Any zone [defense] knows that you want to keep it out of the high post because you can pick people apart.”
NOTES: Morsell, who played 16 minutes in the loss to St. Bonaventure and appeared to still be bothered by the hamstring he strained against Jackson State, played just four minutes Saturday. A team spokesman said that the status of the former Mount Saint Joseph star for Syracuse will likely be determined when the Terps hold an extended shootaround at the Carrier Dome on Monday afternoon. … Syracuse guard Tyus Battle, who suffered a bruise to his lower back in Wednesday night's win over Toledo, will also be a game-time decision, Boeheim told Syracuse.com Sunday. The 6-foot-6 sophomore, who leads the Orange in scoring with 20 points a game, took part in some light drills at the team's practices over the weekend.