Maryland Terrapins fine-tuning their offense in advance of the ACC tournament

By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 11, 2010

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- The churn began in earnest in early February. Day after day, the Maryland men's basketball team looked forward to its next opponent, searching for deficiencies that could be exploited. One of Coach Gary Williams's defining characteristics as a coach is his insular ability to move on to the next task, and that mind-set was evident in his players, as well, over the past month.

"Their last six or seven games were rough," one ACC coach said Wednesday of the Terrapins, "because every game meant first place."

On Saturday, the churn came to a temporary halt following a six-point win at Virginia to close out a regular season in which Maryland claimed a share of the ACC crown with Duke. Maryland had used its high-powered offense to rout opponents regularly early on during the conference slate and continued to execute it efficiently down the stretch.

But ever the meticulous operators, the Terrapins sensed lately that something was off. It was not the end result; Maryland arrived here Wednesday riding a seven-game winning streak. It was not the point production; the Terrapins owned the top-ranked scoring offense in the ACC in conference play.

Rather, it was the timing of Maryland's offense that could use a little fine-tuning, and in a change of course, the Terrapins actually had time to address the issue this week as they prepared for the ACC tournament.

"What happens is you get a little sloppy sometimes," Williams said Tuesday. "You know what you're supposed to do, but unless you hit it every day, you develop bad timing in a play or something like that. Or you get the attitude where the play is what's good, not the timing of the play. And there isn't a play out there unless you time it really well or run it correctly. So that's what you try to get back to in the situation we're in this week."

Maryland took Sunday and Monday off -- a much-needed mental respite, Williams and players said, from the season's grind -- and then spent time analyzing film of their own play, something they hadn't had much chance to do in recent weeks.

Specifically, when they watched tape of the second half of Saturday's victory at Virginia, the Terrapins noticed minuscule flaws in the way they ran their timing-based flex offense that might not have had much short-term consequence, but can develop into detrimental habits if left uncorrected. Passing the ball a split second too soon. Making a cut a split second too late. Not waiting long enough for a screener to come set.

These are the sort of wrinkles a team with the fifth-highest offensive efficiency rate in the nation tries to smooth out before it enters the postseason. A first-round bye in the ACC tournament afforded the Terrapins an extra day to assess themselves while waiting to find out their next opponent -- Maryland will play either Georgia Tech or North Carolina on Friday in the quarterfinals -- and they seized the opportunity.

"When you out there playing you feel as though you running the offense as well as you can because, you know, we're just playing and we're just trying to make the offense work and score," sophomore guard Sean Mosley said. "But when we sit back and watch film we see the little things that we need to sharpen up. The last two days, I think we did a great job of just going over our offense and trying to slow things up and make everything on time."

Several players noted how reliant Maryland's flex offense is on proper timing. It's not just that someone has to make a particular cut; it's that the cut must coincide precisely with the actions of his teammates in order for the play to be most effective.

"If you're too soon or too late, that's going to mess up another option for another player from that play," junior guard Adrian Bowie said. "Because from one play we have so many options, and if you mess up one option it can mess up the whole play."

That might be a bit of an overstatement. Senior guard Eric Hayes said the plays still can produce points if the timing is a bit off; it's the shot quality that suffers. Maryland led the ACC in field goal percentage (46.2 percent) and three-point field goal percentage (42.8 percent) in conference play -- and not by happenstance. The Terrapins' offensive success was a product of their crispness, something they wanted finely tuned as they get into the win-or-go-home portion of season.

In an attempt to disrupt Maryland's offensive flow, opposing teams have begun to "cheat" on the Terrapins' low-post screens, according to the ACC coach, who was granted anonymity in return for his candor.

For instance, one of Maryland's flex cuts involves a player curling past a screen and receiving a pass near the free throw line for what should be an open look. The coach said opposing teams have begun to instruct their defenders to go through the middle of the lane and meet their man at the catch, rather than try to follow him around the screen.

If, however, Maryland operates its offense with precise timing, the coach acknowledged, that defensive strategy is about as futile as all the rest.

"We're not going to change much about how we've been playing since we've been playing well," senior forward Landon Milbourne said. "But sometimes you just need to reset yourself a little bit. This is kind of like a new season for us is how we're going to approach it."

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