Defensive struggles, lack of rim protection continue to hurt Terps

December 11, 2013

(Associated Press)

To Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon, scoring 75 points against George Washington should have been enough to win. Same with 77 points against Connecticut, or 83 against Oregon State, but the Terrapins lost all three. The team’s untimely turnovers and calamitous point guard situation have drawn attention, but “our problem lies at the other end, too,” Turgeon said Wednesday.

The Terrapins still rank 43rd nationally in defensive efficiency, according to Kenpom.com, but that figure has been propped up by stellar games against the likes of lowly Abilene Christian and Marist. Against the Colonials and Buckeyes, however, they allowed more than one point per possession. Maryland’s back-court defenders are getting clipped on screens and losing ballhandlers off the dribble. Post players are slow to help and slower to recover. But Turgeon thinks the true problem lies in something more intangible.

“I think it’s effort,” Turgeon said. “Effort and concentration. That’s really what it comes down to. We played hard in the second half [on Sunday against George Washington]. They don’t go to the foul line, they have a hard time scoring. It’s just effort. They know what to do. They’ve been taught, especially the veteran guys. They know what to do.”

Turgeon has never fielded elite shot-blocking teams, though the 2012-13 Terps posted the best block rate of his college coaching career. Of course, much of that stemmed from Alex Len, who swatted 8 percent of opponents’ field goal attempts whenever he took the floor. But with Len now playing with the Phoenix Suns, Maryland is left without the services he provided at the rim.

“Alex covered up for a lot of mistakes,” Turgeon said. “I think we’re further along defensively than we were last year; Alex just covered up all our mistakes. We don’t have that this year.”

Indeed, center Shaquille Cleare uses his strength to out-muscle opponents attempting to back him down, but he has blocked just five shots through nine games. Forward Charles Mitchell is worse, with just two blocks in 20 minutes per night. The only reason Maryland’s block rate hasn’t dipped below the national average – its ranks 168th out of 351 Division I teams – is because Jake Layman (10 blocks), Dez Wells (five blocks) and Nick Faust (four blocks) all occasionally tee up highlight-worthy rejections in transition.

“We play good team defense,” said Jon Graham, who in his first meaningful minutes this season blocked three shots on Sunday. “I think I said this after GW. We came out a little tight, little anxious. Once we loosened up, our team defense got better, and that led to scoring points and getting stops.

“Part of it is a mind-set. We’ve got to figure it out and get it together. I feel like we’ll do that. We took a good step today in practice. It’s a matter of coming out with fire and attacking from the jump.”

The Terps seem better suited for an up-tempo, havoc-wreaking defensive style like they showed in the second half against George Washington, when the Colonials panicked and allowed a 14-point lead to disappear before pulling it out in the end. But Turgeon balked at the idea of pressing on a regular basis, citing inconsistencies against Oregon State and in the first half against George Washington, not to mention a lack of back-court depth.

“You’ve got to understand how the game works, guys,” Turgeon said. “We’re going to try to press. That all depends on who you’re playing. It’s easy to come back, it’s hard to come back and win. We know press is a part of what we do. Our half-court defense has to get a lot better for us to win at a high level. But we’ll sprinkle it in. There’s no doubt.”

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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Alex Prewitt | December 11, 2013