Pat Connaughton jogged into the paint and raised his arms, crossing them into an “X.” The Notre Dame guard had already spent 12 minutes torching the Maryland men’s basketball team on Wednesday night. His Fighting Irish were up by 14 points, so maybe this particular set play planned to salt the wound, or at least give the Comcast Center crowd more to boo about.
But Connaughton’s defender knew what “X” meant, and Nick Faust looked toward the Maryland bench and signaled “X,” too. He knew Connaughton would start on the near block and exchange places with center Garrick Sherman, cutting up to the top of the key. It was only basic entry action, a necessary precursor to the real play that followed, but here Faust saw his opportunity.
As guard Demetrius Jackson came off a screen from Sherman and Sherman flashed low, Connaughton moved up and Faust moved with him. A lazy pass from Jackson turned into a steal, a breakaway and a two-handed dunk on the other end.
“Just using my length really,” Faust said. “I have a big wing[span] but the quickness of a small guard. I just try to use all my tools. It’s not really an X’s and O’s thing. It’s just me knowing where to be and anticipating.”
In two weeks, Faust has transformed from an enigmatic wild card, equally capable of strong performances (17 points on 6 of 11 attempts vs. Northern Iowa) and poor ones (27.5 percent shooting in five nonconference losses), into arguably Maryland’s most consistent player.
Take out his rough night at Pittsburgh on Jan. 6 (seven points on 2-of-7 shooting), and Faust is averaging 15 points per game since Dec. 29. More importantly, he has embraced his role as an energetic defender off the bench and rarely forces off-balance shots like the old version might have done.
“Nick Faust was tremendous,” Coach Mark Turgeon said Wednesday. “Couldn’t take him out, he was so good defensively. I know Connaughton got tired, he had to play 40 minutes, but I thought Nick was tremendous.”
Connaughton, by nature, isn’t a particularly active shooter. He doesn’t spend possessions cutting around the half-court, trying to lose his defender among the jungle of screens, nor does he sneakily fade behind picks to shake players who jump over them. Many of his 19 points – 15 in the first half — came when the Terps lost him in transition. Midway through second half, Connaughton was 0 for 3 from the field and only scored when he split a high screen and got fouled at the rim.
“Down the stretch,” one analyst on the ESPN broadcast said, “it has to be Sherman and Connaughton, you would think.”
Connaughton never left the game, and neither did Faust. Maryland’s junior guard hasn’t reached 30 minutes since Dec. 14, but in these key moments he’s indispensable. Sixteen of his 24 steals this season have come after halftime, and that length helped keep Connaughton at bay.
“I think he had what, four points?” Faust said after, perfectly confident in the new player he’s become. “It was just me switching onto him.”