The ladder was being propped up and the Maryland men’s basketball players were climbing it, scissors in hand, Paradise Jam championship hats on their heads after a win over Providence on Nov. 25. Down on the court, Coach Mark Turgeon was celebrating his team’s third straight victory and talked with reporters about it.
“We changed our identity to a finesse team trying to outscore people to really guarding,” he said then.
That new identity indeed carried the Terrapins to wins over Northern Iowa and Providence at the event in the U.S. Virgin Islands, sparking renewed excitement for a group that slogged into St. Thomas after a crushing home loss to Oregon State. On Wednesday, though, all notions of defense abandoned Maryland – or perhaps the other way around – during the first half of a 76-60 loss at fifth-ranked Ohio State.
Reviewing the ESPN telecast reveals the defensive problems the Terps (5-3) endured and, while certainly fixable and not at all catastrophic, contributed to the game snowballing out of control. Turgeon and his players will meet with reporters again on Saturday, and defense has surely become a point of emphasis during practice entering Sunday’s matchup against upstart George Washington (7-1) in the BB&T Classic.
Look no further than two separate three-play sequences: The three-point barrage by LaQuinton Ross that sparked the Buckeyes early and the three lob passes to Sam Thompson that sent them into intermission with a 17-point lead.
LAQUINTON ROSS THREE-POINTER, 19:11 LEFT IN FIRST HALF
Ohio State entered the game struggling from the arc, so maybe Maryland gambled on the Buckeyes staying cold, sagging off the perimeter to stem penetration. But the Terps did a poor job recovering to the perimeter, and switching every dribble hand-off created mismatches, like this one on Ohio State’s second possession.
“I didn’t really notice, to be honest,” Maryland’s Evan Smotrycz said when asked about Ross’s early bombs. “We were switching one through four. I was in help side most of the time.”
That’s Aaron Craft with the basketball, lightning-quick at the top of the key, dribbling against Smotrycz. Amir Williams, 23, occupies Shaq Cleare in the paint while Ross (10) and Shannon Scott (3) spot up along the three-point line. If Dez Wells were even a shade higher, like near the elbow, it creates an easier recovery path toward Ross once Craft executes the drive-and-kick. Even so, Ross spots up rather deep and, with his quick release, a shot from that distance on this type of play is rather unguardable.
LAQUINTON ROSS THREE-POINTER, 18:31 LEFT IN FIRST HALF
This one was a more egregious example of Maryland’s defensive rotational struggles. Williams set a high screen then rolled to the basket, but look where four Terps defenders have stationed themselves. Jake Layman (1) guards the ball. Wells (3) plays help-side defense on Williams, but once Cleare arrives he needs to recover to his man. Faust (4) is so close to Wells they could be holding hands.
So the ball whips around the perimeter, first from Lenzelle Smith Jr. to Scott at the top of the key, where Smotrycz matches up. But look at the distance from Wells and Faust to Ross and Craft. Cleare has already fronted Williams on the right block. One more quick pass and Ross is wide open for another shot.
LAQUINTON ROSS THREE-POINTER, 15:37 LEFT IN FIRST HALF
This one, which put Ohio State up 6-2 and sent Value City Arena into a frenzy, requires more setup. Williams will set a ball screen on Smotrycz, who again had switched onto Scott after a dribble-handoff.
Cleare shows help and Williams dives, so Wells picks up Williams in the paint. At this point, Faust needs to rotate up to Ross, who shoots up to the perimeter. Ohio State would need two swing passes to reach Craft in the left corner, at which point Wells could easily have recovered.
But Faust doesn’t rotate. He hedges towards Craft – two passes away – and leaves open Ross – one pass away, with two three-pointers in his pocket already. Chalk this up to quick ball movement by Ohio State and slow rotational help by Maryland.
Less than one minute later, Ross made another three-pointer. This one could be excused. By this point, Ross was on fire, but the Terps still probably should have been face-guarding him and defending from underneath screens.
“It’s amazing how, as a competitor, a guy hits a shot who’s known as a shooter, I know he hadn’t shot it well, but you don’t find him,” Turgeon said. “Disappointing.”
SAM THOMPSON DUNK, 4:45 LEFT IN FIRST HALF
Here is where the dumpster fire began. The Terps were only down 28-20 at this point, perfectly capable of mounting another run to bridge the gap. Wells tries to thread the needle with a bounce pass to Damonte Dodd, but it skips off Scott’s leg and bounces away. The important thing here is the distance between Layman, standing in the right corner for a three-pointer, and Thompson, who’s maybe six feet away.
Off to the races Ohio State went, and check out where Thompson and Layman are now. Of course, those four Maryland players all watching the basketball and not checking the backdoor didn’t help matters either. Layman either needed to yell or someone needed to recognize Thompson teeing up the alley-oop.
SAM THOMPSON FREE THROWS, 4:17 LEFT IN FIRST HALF
Almost the same exact situation, but less than 30 seconds later. Roddy Peters commits a turnover at the top of the key and the basketball squirts away. Again, notice the distance between Layman and Thompson.
Thompson streaks out and Layman is slow to recover. All Dodd can do is slap Thompson’s arm, sending him to the free throw line, where he makes one of two attempts.
SAM THOMPSON DUNK, 3:47 LEFT IN FIRST HALF
Thirty more seconds passed. Layman drove down the left side and hoisted a layup. It missed and two Ohio State players went for the rebound. Already, the Terps are in a bad position. Thompson and Scott are streaking with four Maryland players behind them.
Faust was the safety valve, and did a fine job picking up the outlet pass. This was the least egregious of the sequence, but at least Smotrycz and Varun Ram, two of those Terps behind the rebound in the previous frame, got somewhat back.
Again, this bears repeating: Three straight Ohio State possessions ended in alley-oops to Sam Thompson. The Buckeyes exposed a porous transition defense and exploited it.
“Let me tell you something: I can’t count how many times we talked about lob passes to that kid in our scouting report,” Turgeon said. “So it wasn’t a lack of effort on our coaches’ part leading up to that. A lot of them were on the break. Those were hard to stop.”