The secret to Maryland’s basketball success in 2014-15

By now, Maryland basketball fans probably have heard or read about Ken Pomeroy’s assertion that Maryland has been the luckiest college basketball team in the country this season.

And, after watching the Terrapins pull out another close game in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament against Indiana on Friday night, they probably don’t care.

luckPomeroy, widely respected for his statistics-driven analysis of the game, may have a point about the Terrapins. It’s his assertion – in part – that blowout wins and losses are a better indicator of a team’s relative strength than their performance in close game. A nail-biter, after all, could be decided by something completely out of one’s control, like a miracle shot a bad call, etc. That Maryland is now 11-0 in games decided at six points or less seems like an anomaly. By all rights, a team’s record in such games should be about .500.

Having watched Maryland basketball for 40 years and having covered it for more than 30, I must admit that the continued success of this year’s team has flummoxed me and some of my friends and colleagues as well.

I don’t mean to suggest that Maryland isn’t good; it’s hard to argue with a 27-5 record. But how good? Longtime Terrapins watchers I know have e-mailed me in recent weeks wanting to know just how good this team is, compared with some of the other strong entries Maryland has produced.

I can’t honestly say where I would put this team. Much of what has happened this season doesn’t quite seem to add up. Then you look at the gaudy record, the No. 8 ranking and wonder what you’re overlooking. This team set a program record for regular-season victories (26) but I don’t think any of us would judge this to be better than the team that won the national championship in 2002, even though it has a better regular-season record.

I’m not sure this year’s squad is better than the last truly great team Maryland had in 2009-2010, the group led by Greivis Vasquez and Eric Hayes on the perimeter and Jordan Williams inside. Those Terrapins (24-9 overall, 13-3 in the ACC) tied with Duke for first place in the regular-season and then lost a heart-breaker to Michigan State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

So many of the things that have happened to and for this year’s team don’t quite add up. How to explain the team’s success in so many close games? Is it luck, or are they simply battle-tested?

If Maryland does indeed possess some magical “clutch” quality, than how to explain its really bad losses this season. The Terrapins lost by 24 at Ohio State, by 19 at Indiana and by 16 at Iowa. The final margin at Illinois – 64-57 – didn’t look bad, but Maryland fell far behind in the second half before a frantic rally made the score respectable. I’m not sure I could find another Maryland team that finished so well and absorbed so many lopsided losses.

In terms of the close wins, should Maryland even get credit for some of these? I can appreciate the value of hanging tough against quality teams like Indiana (twice) Wisconsin and at Michigan State. But narrow escapes against the likes of mighty Monmouth (five-point win for Maryland at home), Penn State (six-point win at home; three-point win on the road), Northwestern (one-point win at home) and Nebraska (four-point win at home; three-point win on the road) would seem to suggest that Maryland is, on a relatively frequent basis, mortal. Those four aforementioned teams are combined 66-65 this season.

Then, too, Maryland doesn’t exactly look the way most quality college basketball teams look. Mark Turgeon’s team is lacking in balance and post offense – two factors generally associated with success.

It’s often said that when a good team gets on a roll, somebody different can star every night. For this year’s Maryland team, that’s certainly not the case. There’s sensational freshman guard Melo Trimble (16.2 points per game), senior swingman Dez Wells (15.6) and junior forward Jake Layman (13.0) – and everyone else.

No one outside the “Big Three” has led Maryland in scoring since mid-December. Since the first of the year, the rest of the regular rotation – Damonte Dodd, Dion Wiley, Richaud Pack, Evan Smotrycz, Jonathan Graham, Jared Nickens and Michal Cekovsky – has produced just five games of double-figures scoring. Only one of those – Graham’s stunning 16-point outburst against Penn State – involved a performance of more than a dozen points.

The team’s two nominal centers – Dodd and Cekovsky – have combined for one game in double figures this season. That was Cekovsky’s modest 10-point effort against VMI, back on Nov. 30. Smotrycz, a senior forward who has been bothered by nagging injuries all season, has scored in double figures just once this season as well.

No have the big men rebounded particularly well. Layman leads the team, grabbing six rebounds per game. Smotrycz is next at 4.1. Maryland ranks seventh in the conference in rebounding margin at a modest plus-1.7 per game. Last year’s team (which was 10 games worse at this point, 17-15) was almost twice as good, with a plus-3.2 differential.

Clearly, scoring depth and interior play – two factors that would seem to be critical to a team’s success – are not the strengths of this year’s Maryland team.

How, then, do you explain the impressive record, the high national ranking, the near-certainty that the Terrapins will earn a top three seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament?

The secret to Maryland’s success almost certainly lies in two area overlooked by most casual fans – defense and free-throw shooting. Offensively, Trimble and Wells can be spectacular at times, but their team has surpassed all reasonable expectations because it excels in those two areas.

Entering the conference tournament semifinal against Michigan State on Saturday afternoon, Maryland has held opponents below 40 percent accuracy (.395) from the field this season – an impressive figure any year, but even moreso for a team without a bona fide shot-blocker (although Dodd and Cekovsky may soon get there). In the last 20 years, Maryland has limits opponents to less than 40 percent shooting just five times – including 2001-2002, the national championship season. Credit Mark Turgeon, whose teams at other places (Wichita State, Texas A&M) have traditionally guarded well. The Terrapins don’t do anything especially funky at that end of the floor, playing mostly hard-nosed man-to-man. But what they do, they do well. In 21 games this year, the Terps have held an opponent under 40 percent, including the last five in a row.

Maryland’s other huge edge has come at the free-throw line. There, the Terrapins are shooting almost .757 as a team, tied with Wisconsin for second-best in the Big Ten this season. If the figure holds, it would rank among the top three or four free-throwing shooting seasons in school history, and would ranks within an eyelash of the best ever (.758 in 1975-76). Free throws have accounted for roughly one-third (740 of 2235) of Maryland’s points this season.

But how Maryland has shot free throws has been largely a function of who ha been shooting them. When Maryland has the basketball, it is almost always in the hands of either Melo Trimble or Dez Wells, two standouts when it comes to creating a shot or a foul. Trimble shoots 87 percent from the line – a figure that led the conference. Wells, meanwhile, was eighth in the Big Ten at 81 percent.

Whether Maryland is ahead or behind, Wells or Trimble is running the show. Their abilities with the basketball make them difficult to guard. Their accuracy at the line, meanwhile, makes it almost impossible for a team to come back on the Terrapins or for a slim, late-game lead to get away. The reason Maryland is 11-0 in games decided by six points or less this season is because its two primary ballhandlers don’t miss from the line, thus making late-game leads safe. It’s like having two great closers available in the bullpen for the ninth inning.

Credit Turgeon for this, too. In a close game, the ball is almost always where it needs to be. He’s figured that out, which some coaches never do. And Maryland has profited handsomely as a result.

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