The Maryland Terrapins (18-12) have nearly driven their exasperated fans to an early grave this season.
Their early victory over then-No. 5 Michigan State gave us fearless freaks some renewed faith in our mighty Terps.
Then, we were rudely awakened from our pleasant dreams to a cold, harsh reality.
Since that convincing 80-62 shellacking of the Spartans, the Terrapins have managed just one win against a nationally-ranked opponent.
Granted, this was a monster triumph against ACC rival North Carolina, ranked No. 3 at the time.
Junior Greivis Vasquez scored a career-high 35 points on 13-of-24 shooting in the 88-85 upset on Feb. 21.
But instead of solidifying after that hard-earned win, the Terrapins have firmly entrenched themselves in the ranks of “bubble” teams, those hoping to impress the NCAA selection committee with a meaningful run through a conference tournament.
Maryland recently lost another tough game, this time to conference bottom-feeder Virginia (10-17) on Saturday.
Virginia’s Mamadi Diane hit a tie-breaking three-pointer with time running down, and it proved to be the game-winning basket in the Cavaliers’ 68-63 win.
To add insult to injury, Diane has been a bench player for much of the season.
But here, he went 3-of-4 from three-point range and finished the game with 23 points on 7-of-12 shooting.
The most troubling trend for the Terrapins has been their lack of aggressive play against the zone defenses instituted by their opponents in recent games.
Senior forward David Neal does not want his potentially last game in a Maryland uniform to end in disappointment again.
“The object of a zone defense is to make you stand still and not want to move,” said Neal. “I think we fell into that trap the last couple of games. The basic thing is getting the 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 our man defense.”
The Virginia Cavaliers slowed Maryland down by effectively clogging the middle of the lane. Maryland’s guards were harassed while driving towards the basket.
The chance to create scoring opportunities in the open court is taken away when a team cannot see past the swarming 3-2 zone defense.
In Maryland’s next game, versus the Wake Forest Demon Deacons (24-5), the 1-3-1 zone defense stifled their offensive groove as well.
Wake Forest plugged 6'9" forward Al Farouq-Aminu in at the top of the key, and Vasquez and reserve guard Eric Hayes felt the pressure immediately at mid court. Maryland ended up losing the game 65-63.
Coach Gary Williams changed things up in practice this week.
He had the team work against both the 1-3-1 and 3-2 zone, preparing set counter-plays for both schemes.
In the recent losses, Maryland has settled for long-range jump shots instead of pursuing high percentage, close-up buckets.
Against Virginia, the Terrapins jumped out to a 13-point first half lead by attacking the lane with authority. They shot 46.1 percent from the field in the first half, but dwindled down to 37.5 percent in the second.
Coach Williams believes the best way to break down a zone defense is by making sure all the players are moving without the ball, not just the ball handler.
“When the ball goes somewhere against the zone, you have to react to that,” said Williams. “If you don’t have the ball, you have to get in better position to receive the pass or rebound or whatever. All of a sudden they go zone, and there’s a tendency to stand around because there’s nobody in your face all the time in a zone. We’re really stressing away-from-the-ball movement in our zone offense.”
One advantage the Terrapins might have in their first round ACC Tournament game against N.C. State is the knowledge that the Wolfpack will be working to avenge the 71-60 loss they suffered on Mar. 1.
In that loss, the Wolfpack stuck to a man-to-man defense, so don’t be surprised, Terps’ fans, to see the zone from N.C. State, early and often.
Maryland needs to relax, and stop pressing in their offensive execution. Take open shots as they become available. If the Terps remain patient, the Wolfpack will end up the team who blinks first. Frustration will be like the sixth man in what amounts to a one-game playoff for the Terrapins.
Win, and you press on to your next opponent. Lose, and you are a spectator for the rest of March Madness.
Final Score Prediction:
Maryland 72, N.C. State 66