Baltimore Sun reporter Don Markus on the reaction of the Maryland men's basketball team during the NCAA selection show. (Kevin Richardson/BSMG)
Just as Maryland coach Mark Turgeon had to make personnel adjustments in his starting lineup and rotation when faced with early-season injuries and midseason slumps, there were times when he also had to tweak his offense.
As efficient as the Terps seemed in some of their nonconference games, the grit of Big Ten Conference defense and the grind of a long season made it impossible at times for Turgeon to completely stick with the motion offense he implemented during NCAA-approved practices last summer.
"The foundation of motion is still there," Turgeon said recently. "We've cheated a little bit, teams have guarded differently, but what it does is that it gives us an offense every time down the floor where guys know where they're supposed to be.
"I think it's helped us with our turnovers and just being under control. Some games it works better than others. Early in the year it really helped us, then teams adjusted. It hasn't been as good, but it's still been a staple of what we do. It helps slows us down a little bit."
With the start of the NCAA tournament, Turgeon is hoping to see more efficiency than he did toward the end of the Big Ten season, when opponents that played the Terps more than once — in Michigan State's case, three times — figured Maryland out.
The Terps, seeded fourth in the Midwest region, will certainly be tested Friday when they play No. 13 seed Valparaiso (28-5) Friday in Columbus, Ohio. The Crusaders rank eighth in the country in field-goal defense (35 percent), and 18th in scoring defense (59.3 points per game).
Turgeon said that the Terps have "worked hard" on their motion during practice the past few days, yet acknowledged "it might not be quite as sharp as we were earlier in the year because of other things we've added."
A year ago, fans would often come away from watching the Terps not knowing exactly what Turgeon was trying to do with the offense. Statistically it showed: according to TeamRankings.com, Maryland was 204th in offensive efficiency last season.
"We used to play a lot of one-on-one, we still do, but the spacing and isolations are better," said Turgeon, whose team is ranked 73rd in efficiency this season by TeamRankings.com.
This year, there seems to be more a sense of what the Terps are trying to accomplish.
Even when plays break down, freshman point guard Melo Trimble hits shots or gets fouled more than most players in the country. Senior guard Dez Wells has cut down on his turnovers and improved his shooting. Junior Jake Layman is better taking it to the basket.
Those who have watched the Terps since the start of the season have noticed a difference.
"The offense runs better because you have players who like movement, who are best with movement and are trying really hard to work together," said ESPN and CBS analyst Dan Bonner, who has worked several Maryland games this season. "That's the key of the motion offense."
"There are a lot of different variations of the motion offense, but the one thing you can't do is dribble without purpose, and the Maryland kids don't do that. They're usually attacking, they're creating open opportunities. The one thing you can't do is stand there and pound the ball."
Jay Bilas, who served as the analyst on several ESPN telecasts involving the Terps this season, including their 59-53 win over No. 3 Wisconsin on Feb. 24, said Monday that Maryland played smarter and shared the ball a lot better this season than last year.
According to Bilas, it has given Turgeon an opportunity to "expand their menu" in terms of the intricacies of the motion offense.
"Sometimes you have a team that is not as basketball savvy or quite as smart and you have to keep it simpler," Bilas said. "[A year ago] he had some ball-dominant players, now the ball doesn't stick. He has guys that will give it up because they know they will get it back.
"With guys that are versatile and have a better understanding of making reads ... you can put some more things in, and I think Mark's done that. He's taking advantage of some things his guys can do — for example, Dez Wells in the post."
Not that the Terps move fluidly on offense all the time. After a hot start in Saturday's Big Ten tournament semifinal loss to Michigan State in Chicago, Maryland's offense became stagnant when Wells got in foul trouble and Trimble admittedly started forcing shots.
Statistically, Maryland is scoring 1.5 points fewer a game than last season (69.5 compared to 71), yet is shooting a higher percentage on 3-pointers (37.2 compared to 34.2). The biggest difference is at the free-throw line, where the Terps have gone from 67.9 percent (238th) to 75.7 percent (14th). That bodes well in the NCAA tournament.
Hall of Fame coach Gary Williams said establishing two first-team all-Big Ten players in Trimble and Wells, as well as a third-team all-conference scoring option in Layman, has given the Terps all the balance they need.
"A good offense, you can't be taking turns. It's not a democracy," Williams said Monday. "The best shooters should take the most shots. When you have guys on the court — and you can tell with some guys — that take a bad shot, it's usally because they haven't had a shot for awhile. They think they deserve to be taking shots and all a sudden a bad shot goes up and that's contagious, just like passing is contagious."
Williams said the motion offense has evolved from the days when Indiana ran it with a series of passing and cutting and screening inside to the modern game that is based more on either big men screening beyond the foul line and rolling to the basket or having guards either popping 3-pointers or taking it to the rim.
"The motion offense, that's like a blanket they put on a lot of things," Williams said. "Most teams that run motion offense these days, screen and rolls are a big part of it — you can call it a screen-and-roll offense as much as a motion offense, there's two or three screen-and-rolls before they take a shot."
The Terps have done both with Trimble and Wells. What helps Maryland is both guards can shoot from the outside as well as drive. Not only are they both above-average finishers — Wells typically with dunks and Trimble by withstanding contact — they were among the top free-throw shooters in the Big Ten.
"I think the biggest addition was obviously Trimble, because he's a true point guard," Williams said. "He sees the court and just because he scores points that doesn't mean you can't be a point guard. … That really helped Wells and Layman get better.
"Wells' leadership has been a big factor in them all being unselfish. They want to win above everything else. All good teams have that about him. I think Maryland has done a really good job of remaining unselfish all year."