Terrapins Try Not to Get Zoned Out at ACC Tournament

By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 11, 2009; 11:44 AM

ATLANTA, March 11 -- On Thursday night, Maryland will take on North Carolina State in the opening round of the ACC tournament armed with the knowledge that a win over the Wolfpack is likely just the first step toward an NCAA tournament bid, especially after losses in three of its last four games. The Terrapins also will be certain of the ways in which the Wolfpack will try to stop them.

Maryland's offense at times has appeared hesitant yet impatient against zone defenses in recent games, a major reason why the Terrapins could be on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble.

"The object of a zone defense is to make you stand still and not want to move," senior forward Dave Neal said Tuesday. "I think we fell into that trap the last couple of games. The basic thing is getting ball movement, penetrate and kick and attack the zone. You can't be passive against the zone; you have to attack it the same way we did in our man offense."

Over the past four days, first in College Park and now here, the Terrapins have worked to break such ill-advised habits, tailoring their offense to more potently attack the zone defenses that have flummoxed them in recent games.

On Saturday in a 68-63 loss to Virginia, the Cavaliers slowed down Maryland by operating out of a 3-2 zone that clogged the middle of the lane and made driving toward the basket a more daunting task. It also neutralized the Terrapins' flex cuts, which were so effective in building a 13-point lead in the first half.

It was the second straight game in which Maryland has struggled against the zone. Wake Forest puzzled the Terrapins with a 1-3-1 zone during the second half of a 65-63 loss March 3 at Comcast Center. With 6-foot-9 forward Al-Farouq Aminu at the top, Wake Forest's zone defense picked up Maryland's ballhandler at midcourt.

"I personally think it's harder playing against a 1-3-1, especially against Wake, who's extremely long and athletic," Neal said. "Just the height that they have, and as quick and athletic as they are, a 1-3-1 takes up pretty much a majority of the half court. A 3-2 is more of inside the paint area or inside the three-point area."

Regardless of which zone defense their opponent has employed, Maryland's players said after both recent losses that they were caught off-guard against the rarely used schemes. Neal said the team typically practices an offense designed to attack man-to-man defenses, which is why such schemes have been more effective this season during games. But, Neal continued, "We don't really do zone offense."

That changed this week. According to Neal and Maryland Coach Gary Williams, the Terrapins have specifically addressed their offense's apparent deficiencies against zone defenses. The team added new wrinkles to existing zone plays and even developed a few new zone schemes.

In addition to tactical improvements, Maryland also addressed what Williams and his players described Saturday as a lack of aggressiveness against Virginia's zone defense. The Terrapins were successful early on largely because they were relentless in their pursuit of close-range, high-percentage shots.

But as the game progressed, Maryland settled for shots from longer range, many of which were taken early in possessions. The Terrapins shot 37.5 percent in the second half against the Cavaliers after shooting 46.2 percent in the first.

Williams said the best way to break down a zone defense is with continued movement by all five players, not just the one with the ball in his hands.

"When the ball goes somewhere against the zone, you have to react to that," Williams said Tuesday. "If you don't have the ball, you have to get in better position to receive the pass or rebound or whatever. I think people go zone to try to make you stand sometimes. You know, you're moving good in your man offense or whatever; all of the sudden, they go zone and there's a tendency to stand around because nobody's in your face all the time in a zone. We're really stressing away-from-the-ball movement in our zone offense."

The team's zone offense has been a point of emphasis this week because the Terrapins know opponents such as N.C. State will watch tapes from the losses to Wake Forest and Virginia and realize that Maryland has struggled mightily against zone defenses.

Neal said the Wolfpack played mostly man-to-man defense against the Terrapins during a March 1 matchup that the Maryland won, 71-60. "But," he said, "if they watched the last two games and saw what we did against a zone defense, I mean, I wouldn't be shocked if they played a majority of zone [defense] this game."

The keys, Neal said, all have to do with remaining aggressive -- i.e., continuing to penetrate off the dribble, continuing to kick it out to the open man and, perhaps most importantly, continuing to shoot the open shot. Neal said that in the past two games, the Terrapins passed up numerous open looks against zone defenses, which proved detrimental in more ways than one.

Maryland's players understand they have little margin for error. If they hope to return to the NCAA tournament, they must defeat the Wolfpack on Thursday night and likely must beat Wake Forest, the tournament's No. 2 seed, on Friday.

The Terrapins say they will be better prepared for any zone defense thrown their way this week. Whether that translates to a more prolific offensive output remains to be seen.

"In situations like that in a game, you just have to stay tough and try to score," junior forward Landon Milbourne said Saturday in Charlottesville. "The bottom line is you have to put the ball in the basket."

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