Terps film review: Cracking the Miami matchup zone

The progress was not lost on Mark Turgeon, even if it came in the most unusual of circumstances. All season his Maryland men’s basketball team had struggled to grasp the basic concepts of his motion offense, which even the third-year coach admitted contained some intentional stasis to generate isolation scenarios. Fans criticized the scheme, saying there was too much standing around, and soon during a five-game, four-loss struggle the players began to believe that, too.

“We have to be active, moving, cutting,” said forward Jake Layman, one of the biggest culprits of inertia. “It’s a big thing tomorrow.”

Strangely enough, the Terrapins finally found movement within their offense, but it came against the matchup zone defense of the Miami Hurricanes, and not the man-to-man defense against which it was designed to run. In fact, they were so effective against the zone that Miami abandoned it shortly into the second half, something that hadn’t happened yet during ACC play.

“Our spacing was great,” said Layman, after he had scored 15 points in a 74-71 win that was far closer than it should have been. “We had a great game plan against it. I think we’re one of the first teams to take them out of it. Coach was really proud of us for that.”

Maryland had beaten Notre Dame’s zone with simple principles, exchanging three wings around the perimeter and working high post/short corner with its big men. But Turgeon knew he needed something different for Wednesday night. The Hurricanes were far more active in their matchup zone, in which players essentially defend man-to-man but only within a given space, and exhibited more discipline. They hadn’t allowed an ACC opponent to top 70 points this season either.

“We were really patient, got a lot of good looks,” forward Evan Smotrycz said. “We really practiced hard at it. Our scout team did a great job getting us ready. We did a really good job against it.”

How great? The Terps shot 44.4 percent in the first half and 69.6 percent in the second half, though most of that came after Miami switched defenses, no small feat in itself. After a frustrating January in which seemingly nothing went right, Turgeon finally got the response from his players he had been searching for. Their cuts were crisp and their passes on point. The shooters hit shots and the drivers drove while, by and large, avoiding turnovers. It was, in a word, unusual.

And so, without a proper segue, here is the latest Terps film review, on how they succeeded against the Miami zone:


In past games against the zone, a perimeter pass usually meant rotating away along the three-point line, a basic exchange. Against Miami, Turgeon added a wrinkle. Anytime the Terps passed from atop the key, they immediately followed it with a looping “L” cut through the paint and onto the strong side.

The third possession brought exactly what Maryland wanted. Dez Wells cut into the short corner with Jon Graham, making just his second start since transferring from Penn State, standing at the mid-post. Seth Allen and Evan Smotrycz are close together, meaning the two Miami guards need to spy them. In the paint, Garrius Adams and Tonjye Jekiri provide help for Donovan Kirk, who’s handling a back-down Wells. That leaves Layman wide open on the right wing for the skip pass and easy three.


Over the past three games, Smotrycz is shooting 70 percent from three-pointers and extra passing like this is a big reason why. Watch how fast the basketball moves from Roddy Peters penetrating to Nick Faust on the left wing to Layman on the right wing via a skip pass to a quick shuffle pass into the right corner for Smotrycz.

All told, the Terps wound up assisting on 15 of 28 made field goals (53.5 percent), a respectable number slightly higher than their average assist rate in ACC wins (44.2 percent) and losses (45.9), though the win ratio is significantly skewed by the win at Boston College, where Maryland had only six assists thanks to Dez Wells going to coast to coast on roughly six thousand occasions.


Not sure if this one was intentional or not, but it’s about as good a secondary-break look as the Terps could have gotten against the zone. Faust initially led the break, then pulled up and kicked out to Smotrycz. With Smotrycz and Layman trailing, they occupied the top defenders. Faust slipped into the right corner, Shaq Cleare used his wide body to screen two people at once and soon Maryland had made its sixth three-pointer less than 13 minutes into the night.

On the ACC Network broadcast, after Faust swished the shot, there was about 10 seconds of silence before someone said, “Wow.”


The real work, though, began after intermission. Having Wells back from foul trouble helped penetration, of which the Terps got plenty. This, for instance, is why the Terps sent their cutter down the middle instead of cutting away, on the rare chance the Miami gets lazy and the slip cut opens something up. In this case, Layman rattled down a mid-range jumper because everyone was so invested in eying Wells, wondering if he would drive.



Two scenarios of ideal ball movement from Maryland here. First, Smotrycz and Allen overload the right side with Wells and Faust atop the key. Mitchell’s ball screen keeps everyone occupied while Allen inching up forces the wing defender to follow him. A quick swing finds Smotrycz in the corner.

Several possessions later, Faust uses the aforementioned slip cut to find a seam near the free-throw line, takes one dribble, draws three defenders and finds Layman for a three. Even though Layman missed, the Terps will live with that look.

Two minutes passed. Roddy Peters penetrated and found Layman for a layup. Then Wells swiped a pass and turned it into a layup. Coach Jim Larranaga had seen enough. He switched to a man-to-man.

“It’s something that we’ve been working on as a team lately, not being selfish, looking for that right shot in our offense and tonight we did a great job with that,” Layman said. “We took them out of their zone, which was huge.”

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