For the first time in 728 days, No. 10 seed Maryland (16-13, 9-11 B1G) will take the floor in the NCAA Tournament against No. 7 seed UCONN (15-7, 11-6 B1G) at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Indiana.
Several of Maryland’s starters including Eric Ayala, Aaron Wiggins and Darryl Morsell were members of the NCAA tournament team two seasons ago. After last season’s premature ending, the Terps are eager for an opportunity to compete with this year’s group in the bubble environment in Indianapolis.
It’s been a season of trials and tribulations for Maryland starting the season 4-9 in the league, with a grueling conference slate. 10 of the Terps’ first 13 conference games were against ranked opponents at the time. Despite the early season struggles, Maryland found its identity towards the ladder part of the season orchestrating a five-game win streak.
“Everybody just could’ve been pissed off, but they weren’t,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “They just competed and fought and that’s really what I’m most proud of.”
During that span, the Terps showed their propensity to play suffocating defense complemented by efficient offense. That defensive success displayed excellent communication and perfectly timed rotations, necessary for the constant switching style defense that Maryland often employs.
Offensively, Wiggins and Ayala spearheaded the attack finding success for themselves, but also creating opportunities for teammates taking what the defense gave them. Ayala has displayed the ability to drive downhill and consistently draw contact, while Wiggins has shown his perimeter shooting prowess accompanied by crafty drives to the basket.
That trend will need to continue for Maryland’s offense to find success against UCONN. As evidenced in the Big Ten Tournament, teams are starting to fly out to contest Wiggins on the three-point line.
As a result, the junior guard has made a more concerted effort to drive and rip it towards the basket to either draw contact or find open teammates. Similar to Ayala, Wiggins will need to play with renewed aggressiveness using his size and craftiness inside to draw contact attacking the basket.
“Just to try to be efficient,” Ayala said of the offensive approach. “Definitely want to play our pace, the pace that benefits the both of us and the rest of our team. As the game goes on, we try to find certain spots and areas where we can attack. I trust Aaron, I know Aaron trusts me and the rest of our team counts on us.”
UCONN presents another challenge defensively, surrendering 64.6 points per game, the lowest average in the Big East. The Huskies’ rank second in the tournament in non-transition effective field goal percentage defense at 42.1%, limiting their opponent’s success in the halfcourt offense.
At times this season, the Terps have become increasingly reliant on the three-point shot. That’s a byproduct of Maryland’s five-out starting lineup where all five guys on the floor can shoot the three and space the floor, lacking a traditional post presence.
However, a pivotal matchup in this contest will be the rebounding battle, limiting the Huskies’ second-chance opportunities. Throughout this season UCONN has thrived on the offensive glass, posting an offensive rebound rate of 36.9%, the fourth highest rate in the tournament field.
Conversely, Maryland has struggled on the offensive glass this season with a 20.9% offensive rebound rating, the lowest in the tournament field, an area where the team’s lack of size is evident. Therefore, boxing out collectively as a unit in an effort to minimize second-chance opportunities will be critical.
UCONN’s offense runs through sophomore guard James Bouknight who averaged 19 points per game and can score at all three levels on the floor. Bouknight has been one of the most dynamic guards in the country when healthy, headlined by a 40-point affair against Creighton earlier this season.
Darryl Morsell, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year will be Bouknight’s primary defender on most possessions, using his length and physicality to bother the sophomore guard. Morsell is no stranger to matching up with the opponent’s best player as his unmatched competitiveness and unrelenting toughness has come to define his career in College Park.
“Yeah he’s excited about it,” Turgeon said of the matchup. “Bouknight is terrific, he looks like an NBA player to me when I watch him play.”
The game will air on CBS with tip off at 7:10 p.m. Saturday.
“Just looking forward to the challenge of going up there and competing at the highest level,” Ayala said. “As a child you dream of playing in March Madness when the lights are on. I think the guys will step up.”