The most annoying member of the Maryland men’s basketball team stands at 5 feet 11, and if the Terrapins manage to win their season opener against No. 18 Connecticut on Friday night, everyone will thank Varun Ram for his irritation. During practices this week, the spry point guard has pulled double duty, impersonating both members of Connecticut’s suffocating back court because someone needed to show Maryland’s guards what Friday night would bring.
“He’s just quick,” forward Jake Layman said. “He’s tough on the ball. He’s giving us a good look for what we’re going to see” against U-Conn.
At Barclays Center on Friday night, the Terps will encounter two Huskies standing only slightly taller than Ram, each armed with the same pesky intensity and penchant for making opposing guards want to scream in frustration. Ryan Boatright, who stands 6 feet, and 6-1 Shabazz Napier form one of the nation’s top guard duos, and a Maryland back court already missing its starting point guard will be the season’s first test dummies.
“Varun is a little like Boatright,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “He never lets up. Boatright can go for like 80 minutes it looks like, watching him on film. We’ll take turns with it depending on who’s guarding the ball. We have multiple guys that can handle it, but to handle their pressure our whole team has to handle their pressure, and I think we’re equipped to do that.”
With the NCAA’s new hand-check rule threatening to turn college basketball games into three-hour marathons of free throws and whistles, Turgeon anticipates an adjustment period after tipoff at 6:30 p.m., which is why Maryland has practiced or scrimmaged six times with referees, to help learn the crackdowns meant to increase scoring and limit physicality.
“There might be a lot of guys playing tomorrow,” Turgeon said.
The Terps will start Dez Wells at point guard, and though his physicality might trump Connecticut’s speed in the half-court, bullishness has little place against a full-court press. If Wells gets into foul trouble, Maryland will turn to freshman Roddy Peters or even, in perhaps the direst of circumstances, Ram.
Maryland kept its fouling to a minimum during its lone exhibition on Sunday, an 84-39 win over Division III Catholic, but given Napier and Boatright’s speed, the Terps need to avoid meaningless reach-in fouls that only will serve to further limit the team’s depth.
“That’s not the same animal we’re running into on Friday night,” Turgeon said of the Catholic game. “But we’ve really worked on keeping our hands to ourselves on defense and getting help, not from our hands but from another defensive player on the floor.”
Turgeon has emphasized help-side team defense this preseason, but it’s not unreasonable to expect Maryland switching to zone on Friday. Wings like Wells and Nick Faust could struggle to laterally defend Napier and Boatright in man-to-man schemes, but their long arms could generate some deflections in a more controlled defensive scenario. Without Seth Allen, however, the Terps can safely rule out constant full-court pressure; the sophomore often served as their middleman, picking off passes like a free safety near the tip-off circle.
The real challenge, though, comes offensively. Maryland’s point guard situation after Allen’s injury is the big question, with Wells taking on responsibilities. His 109 turnovers led the Terps last season, but many were careless, unforced errors he hopes to curb after an offseason of film study and extra practice work.
“It’s getting better daily, but everyone around them is better,” Turgeon said of his point guards. “As a team we make better decisions, so that takes pressure off everybody. Tomorrow’s a huge test. If we can handle those two little guys [Boatright and Napier], I think we’ll be in pretty good shape moving forward. Those two little guys get after you.”
Maryland expects nothing less.