Talented and deep, these Terps have played with tempo and shown multiple defenses. They have forced more turnovers than they have committed. In short, they have played in ways Coach Mark Turgeon’s teams at Maryland never have.
Turgeon — who traditionally has relied heavily on man-to-man defense, and still does — now also has his team switching in and out of multiple zone defenses and occasionally pressing. A few times, those adjustments have altered games.
Asked whether he has ever had a team with this many defensive options, Turgeon said, “I don’t know if I ever have.” When Turgeon was an assistant at Kansas under Roy Williams, the team had a handful of defensive looks, but Turgeon said: “It’s been a long time since I’ve had this many defenses. … Every time I add something, the guys love it and they get excited, so that excites me. Then we get better because of it.”
During the 2018-19 season, Turgeon turned to a zone defense a few times — most notably against Minnesota, when the adjustment, born of desperation as the Terps trailed on the road, led to a win, and then again during the NCAA tournament against LSU, when Maryland had fallen into a 15-point hole. The Terps’ comeback that time wasn’t quite enough, and Maryland exited the tournament one play shy of a round-of-16 game in Washington.
This switch — preparing new schemes for more than just situations when nothing else is working — has come by way of a change in both philosophy and personnel, Turgeon said. Last season’s team practiced other defenses, but Turgeon said, “We weren’t any good in any of them.” So the Terps focused on excelling at one. Now those five freshmen who played in last season’s rotation are a year more experienced and capable of handling the learning load.
“Once Turge told us he had a lot of different defensive schemes that he wanted to throw in, especially the presses and stuff, we got really excited, honestly,” sophomore guard Aaron Wiggins said. “We knew that just means more steals, more transition breaks, more transition buckets.”
So far, it has worked. Against Rhode Island, a game in which the Terps trailed by as many as 12 points, Maryland showed a new 1-3-1 zone, and “it kind of rattled them a little bit,” Turgeon said. The Terps climbed back, reverted to man-to-man defense in the second half and left with a 73-55 win. Ten days later against Fairfield, the Terps’ press helped them run away with a 74-55 victory.
“We’re just so dynamic, so athletic,” sophomore guard Eric Ayala said last month. “... We’re so excited to go out there and run around and just play basketball. [Turgeon] gives us the freedom and trust to go out there and play off instinct.”
Combined with solid showings in Turgeon’s trusted man-to-man scheme — that’s still the team’s best defense, he said — the defensive effort has been a consistent highlight for these undefeated Terps.
Maryland’s ability to press, combined with its length, has brought another welcomed change: The Terps have forced turnovers at a far higher rate than during any of Turgeon’s other seasons at Maryland. According to Ken Pomeroy, Maryland’s opponents have committed turnovers on 20.6 percent of their possessions. Turgeon’s 2018-19 group, partially by nature of its defensive looks, only forced turnovers 14.1 percent of the time, the second-worst mark of 353 Division I teams.
Committing turnovers has long been an issue for Maryland, but through 10 games this season, the Terps have averaged 11.4, their fewest under Turgeon, while producing the best turnover margin (plus-3.3 per game) in his tenure.
“We knew it was a problem,” junior guard Darryl Morsell said. “Just from last year, we were one possession, two possessions away from winning more games, one possession away from being in the Sweet 16. So we knew coming into this year, we had to take care of the ball more to give ourselves more possessions, more opportunities to score.”
In nine of their 10 games, the Terps have won the turnover battle. And the outlier wasn’t lopsided: During the Orlando Invitational, Maryland had 16 turnovers compared to Harvard’s 13. That comes from “playing under control, with patience and confidence,” Wiggins said.
What might be most impressive is how Maryland has improved in this area while also playing faster than ever before under Turgeon. The Terps have averaged 62 field goal attempts per game and are playing at a higher tempo than all but two teams in the Big Ten (Nebraska and Penn State), according to Pomeroy’s metric, which adjusts for opponent.
“When we’re playing faster, everybody’s more locked in and we’re still making the right plays so it becomes fun,” Wiggins said. “Once we start making bad plays and making bad turnovers, that’s when Turge is like, ‘Let’s slow it down.’ ”
The experience helps lead to better decisions. Maryland’s point guard, senior Anthony Cowan Jr., is a four-year starter. The contingent of sophomores has maturity, and Turgeon has said his freshmen are smart.
Big Ten play could slow the Terps, but they still have depth on their side, making a quicker pace an attractive option. Turgeon has said his group will play however it needs to play to win. And, ultimately, these changes and early improvement will only seem beneficial if they lead to better results a few months from now.
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