ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands – The sizable contingent of Maryland basketball family, friends and boosters who puddle-jumped to the Paradise Jam gave guard Varun Ram a standing ovation when he fouled out Friday night, because the defense he provided the Terrapins commanded such a reception. In 19 havoc-wreaking minutes off the bench in a 68-43 win over Marist, the junior had clawed, poked and stolen his way toward almost cult hero status.
“That’s funny,” Ram said later, laughing through his words when hearing about the reception he received. “I might not be the best offensive player, but defensively I can be really aggressive. Especially today it can lead to offense.”
After Maryland allowed 90 points to Oregon State last weekend, Coach Mark Turgeon gathered his players for a sobering film session and dissected every mistake. Here was the sloppy pass that led to a transition layup. The botched ball-screen defense that became an open jumper. The listless effort that amounted to arguably the worst loss of Turgeon’s tenure in College Park.
“It was really bad,” sophomore Jake Layman said. “We said to ourselves, we don’t want to have it again.”
At the core of the team’s early struggles, which had the Terps 1-2 entering the three-game, four-day tournament, sat defense. Once a hallmark of Turgeon’s teams, even those undersized groups lacking a bona fide rim protector, Maryland had regressed since its secret preseason scrimmage against Villanova, no worse than at home versus the Beavers.
And though the Red Foxes (0-5) rank among the country’s worst scoring teams, even keeping them below 45 points was considered a baby step forward in the first round.
“Not our best, because we had some guys get open shots, but I think this season it was our best defensive game,” Layman said.
In the paint, a confident and healthy Shaquille Cleare held third-team all-MAAC center Adam Kemp to seven points, while Damonte Dodd and Charles Mitchell showed quicker rotation in defending any lane penetration. Junior Nick Faust, touted this preseason as Maryland’s lock-down defender, kept Marist forward Chavaughn Lewis mostly in check, holding the team’s leading scorer to just 13 points on 4 of 13 shooting.
“Nick was the one guy who needed to guard him,” Turgeon said, “and Nick did a fantastic job.”
As Dez Wells dealt with early foul trouble, sent to the bench just minutes into the game, Ram played 13 minutes before intermission, hounding Marist’s guards in the full-court. Though credited with just two steals, Ram was the defensive spark the Terps needed on the heels of Oregon State, the 5-feet-9 paragon of what they could become. To wit, after he hit a three-pointer near the Maryland bench shortly before exiting, three fans started chanting “M-V-P, M-V-P.”
Turgeon left the Beavers loss preaching the need to “build depth” on defense, and in his mind that meant throwing more bodies onto the floor and hoping something stuck. On Friday, that was Ram, the human flypaper, swiping at every basketball that entered his peripheral vision. As a team, Maryland forced 19 turnovers.
“He had a couple steals out there, some loose balls he came up with, some scrum plays he’s right in the middle of it,” Turgeon said. “I thought Varun was terrific. I really did. We need him. We’ve got to build depth. Varun’s going to be a part of that depth, Damonte’s going to be a part of that depth. I thought we built it tonight. We’re going to play against better competition on Sunday, so we’ll see if it helps us then.”
The semifinal round brings Northern Iowa, a team Turgeon frequently faced while at Wichita State. The Panthers bulldozed Loyola Marymount 90-81 and shot 57.1 percent (12 of 21) on three-pointers. With an experienced lineup of speedy guards surrounded by deft shooters and paint-clogging bodies, Northern Iowa presents another tough matchup for the Terps, one that should reveal, far better than Marist, the true nature of their defensive improvements.
“We weren’t great, but defensively we were pretty locked in almost every possession,” Turgeon said. “We were pretty good around the rim, which we haven’t been. I know they’re not a great scoring team, but we held them under their average and we really guarded. Coming off Oregon State, it felt good.”