Maryland swingman Dez Wells rarely needs longer than the first media timeout to learn most of an opponent’s offensive tendencies. Pregame film review helps reveal situational quirks, such as whether a right-hander can score from the left side or how a ballhandler rolls off high screens, and working against the scout team in practice helps him learn the opposing team’s plays.
If all goes right, the opposing player he guards should be conscious of the sophomore’s whereabouts after just a few possessions. Basketball is a game of habits, Wells said Tuesday, so such quickness can function as a disruptive mechanism.
This type of mentality has the Terrapins (6-1) exhibiting marked defensive improvement heading into Wednesday night’s game against Maryland-Eastern Shore (0-7). Maryland has overcome cold shooting stretches and erratic ball control by generating points on the defensive end. Sunday’s win over George Mason in the BB&T Classic was the first time Coach Mark Turgeon praised the defensive efforts of all 10 players within his deep rotation.
“It’s communication, effort, just trying to get better on the defensive end,” freshman forward Charles Mitchell said. “We’re all buying into the system we play, trying to be one of the best defensive teams in the country. It took me a lot of time to learn it, but listening to the older dudes, our defense will improve. It’s not the best defense right now, but I feel like we’ll get better as the season goes on.”
Those “dudes” include Alex Len, who leads the ACC with 2.6 blocks per game, and senior captain James Padgett in the post. Wells, meanwhile, has brought a new energy to Maryland’s perimeter defense, serving as an example for sophomore Nick Faust and freshmen Seth Allen and Jake Layman, all of whom have made drastic defensive strides through just seven games.
At some point during Sunday’s game at Verizon Center, Turgeon removed one of his four freshmen, who then asked Turgeon why he was taken out of the game. “Those five guys on the floor can really guard,” Turgeon recalled telling him. “It was a close game, and we have the lead, so we have to protect it.”
It was a pointed message to Maryland’s young players, that playing time derives from smart defense. Allen, a shifty, speedy guard with a penchant for gambling on back-court steals, has curbed his aggressiveness after leaving teammates in too many four-on-five situations. Mitchell has worked to become something of a public-address announcer, alerting guards to pending high screens and directing traffic around the lane.
Against the Patriots, Turgeon said, freshman Shaquille Cleare recovered to contest outside jumpers well, while Layman played solid on-ball defense against hot-shooting George Mason guard Patrick Holloway. On one occasion, Mitchell and Cleare switched on a double screen perfectly, something the Terps hadn’t practiced. “Just savvy,” Turgeon said.
“I like to feel comfortable when guys are in the game, and when they’re playing defense I have to feel comfortable with what they’re doing,” Turgeon said. “Sunday, a lot of them didn’t play well offensively, and unfortunately that’s what people look at whether a kid plays well or not, but I felt comfortable. That’s a step in the right direction. I felt very comfortable with all the young kids and the way they played defensively. I haven’t felt that way a lot.”
Maryland ranks 324th nationally in forced turnovers and 319th in steals, but Turgeon looks elsewhere to measure defensive progress. Opponents are shooting just 36.4 percent from the field, a statistic partially stemming from Maryland’s soft nonconference schedule. But that would still be the lowest opposing field goal percentage allowed by the Terps since 1957-58.
“It’s coming from a little bit of everything, just getting used to guys, getting used to Coach’s defensive principles since a lot of people are new,” Allen said. “It’s mostly effort, I think. Coach really wants us to want to play defense. The reason we’re doing so well is we’re taking pride in our defense. Just locking up. We always try to get three stops in a row. Always.”