The possibilities seemed endless when the season began. Now in January, Maryland men’s basketball has reached a point where any avoidance of complete disaster this season is imperative.
This was a team with legitimate championship ambitions and an equally legitimate roster on paper to go along with it, yet the Terps (9-9, 1-6 B1G) have spent this season salvaging some semblance of hope for the postseason — just as it did last year.
And in its most recent game in Ann Arbor, a game between two teams looking to right the ship and avert a downward spiral, the disparity between Maryland and Michigan was palpable.
Against Michigan, and for a good portion of the season so far, the once touted lineup of guards was reduced to fodder to a more disciplined opponent. Even after coming off the bench to spur improvement, interim head coach Danny Manning failed to get much out of Hakim Hart or Fatts Russell, who were benched in favor of Xavier Green and Ian Martinez and posted a combined total of five points. Both played for over 20 minutes.
“We need more from them,” Manning said of his decision to bench Russell and Hart. “And this is just a way to challenge them and we’re at a point now where we’re gonna push some buttons, do some things a little bit different and go from there.”
Outside of the typical consistency of Hart and the occasional Eric Ayala scoring outburst, the guard play has been a far cry from the versatile group that headlined the preseason. Russell is far from the consistent lead guard that Maryland lacked last season, averaging four assists to go along with two turnovers per game and suboptimal shooting splits that include a 28% mark from three.
Martinez has not fit well enough into his backup point guard role to spell the pace of the starting lineup. The athletic Utah transfer scored just one field goal in his start at Michigan — a performance on par with his two points per game average in 13 minutes of play.
Julian Reese and Qudus Wahab, a big man pair who were acquired to handle the breadth of frontcourt talent in the Big Ten, saw their struggles come to a head at Michigan. Reese did post an impressive 10 points off the bench — most of which came in garbage time — but their collective presence failed to deter Hunter Dickinson from having a comfortable 20-point outing and the Wolverines from 44 paint points. The two, who struggle on both ends of the floor, have recently alternated on the starting lineup.
Overall, the lack of depth was on true display. As Michigan, a team enduring a similarly underwhelming season, played thorough basketball and finished with four double digit scorers and a 58% mark from the floor, Maryland sputtered throughout an inefficient night with Donta Scott and Ayala taking 33 of its 52 shots.
From top to bottom, Maryland has underperformed as a unit and sits in a deeper hole than it did at a similar point last season (Maryland was 2-5 in its first six conference games in 2020 — both wins were against ranked opponents on the road.)
Guards aren’t clicking, the bigs have yet to forge consistent roles and the depth has suffered tremendously as a result. Michigan was one nightmare outcome of the Terps’ shortcomings. But as more established teams meet Maryland and its season continues to trend in the current direction, that ugly night at Michigan will likely end up being the standard in 2022.
“We practice too hard and do too many good things for outcomes like this,” Manning said. “But we gotta stick together, we gotta grind through it and we gotta somehow find a way.”