Three Takeaways from Maryland’s Big Ten tournament run

(Photo Courtesy of Maryland Athletics.)

There are two types of teams in the Big Ten tournament: those with something to prove in March’s precursor to the ultimate big dance, oftentimes vying for a spot in the NCAA tournament, and those who are simply looking to tune-up ahead of the true challenge that awaits. 

With the circumstances that plagued the Terps in the regular season, they ended up being the former. And with what took place as the regular season concluded, Maryland desperately needed to remind themselves of the feeling of a win. 

The Terps got one to open their postseason and managed to deal a tough blow on Michigan on their way out. The conference tournament run, albeit brief, proved quite promising for the Terps given the conditions. Still, there’s little evidence that they can put it all together when it counts. 

“We’ll be ready,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “Our guys are more confident, we’re playing at a much higher level and we’ve been a really great defensive team. That’s why we’re in the NCAA Tournament.”

Here are my three takeaways from Maryland’s Big Ten tournament run.

The offense got going as Wiggins did.

Though nothing in particular was common between Maryland’s two contests, one thing did remain true: the show runs through Aaron Wiggins — or anyone willing to replicate his skillset. Oftentimes it’s Eric Ayala who picks up the slack when Wiggins can’t convert off the dribble but, very rarely is he able to match the same production with similar efficiency. Ayala is ultimately an off-ball guard. 

Since establishing himself as the offense’s centerpiece, Wiggins has been producing points from all three levels. His success continued on Thursday, except he earned seven of his 19 points from the line. 

“Aaron [Wiggins] is a hell of a player,” Ayala said. “He’s very talented. He has a gift that not many people have.”

Evidently, there were calls aplenty in that game, but Wiggins added a flurry of midrange jumpers and sweet finishing at the rim to complete the effort. Wiggins slashed to the rim twice in the span of three possessions to put Maryland back up 10 points to begin the second half against Michigan State. 

The first was a simple blow by past a flat footed Malik Hall. The second was a much flashier finish on an unprepared Aaron Henry who ended up on the receiving end of the junior guard’s trademark pirouette finish.

Alongside Ayala, Wiggins got the offense going in the first half, then put some finishing touches on his performance in the final 20 minutes. Maryland’s offensive onslaught would ensue largely due to Wiggins ability to score at will in the games most important juncture.

However, game two ended up being an extreme departure from Thursday’s events. Aside from a monstrous jam on Michigan’s Franz Wagner that typified Maryland’s first half, Wiggins was all but a nonfactor. Michigan did a great job staving off many of Wiggins dribble drive attempts, off ball movements and oftentimes smothered him when he had possession. And when he did get good looks (2-for-4 in the first half), he missed.

So by the time his services were desperately needed as Michigan made a late-game push, Wiggins couldn’t get going. He did manufacture a minor spark to cut the Wolverine lead to just five, shortly after the ejection of Juwan Howard, but the regular season champs were too overbearing. Darryl Morsell’s scoring spurt in the final half was commendable as well, but it wouldn’t preclude Maryland’s demise — it would only stall it.  

Turgeon has noted on several occasions how Maryland’s offensive struggles keep him awake at night. At the very least, Wiggins provides a semblance of an answer when he can get going, but when he’s silenced, things can get especially dire for Maryland. 

Two huge games from Darryl Morsell.

Morsell has proven throughout his four-year career that he is willing to do just about everything on the court to help his team win — but that doesn’t mean he should. Morsell took a backseat role against Michigan State, but held down the fort on both sides of the court in game two. 

Against the Spartans, Morsell led the second half defensive effort that stymied Henry and the Michigan State offense allowing just a 33% shooting performance from the field. He added a three and layup to help stretch Maryland’s lead as well. 

Morsell did much more the following afternoon, this time out of necessity. It’s probably safe to assume this was exactly what Michigan wanted. Forcing the least efficient starter to take on a dominant offensive role rarely yields promising results — except for Friday afternoon. Against the Wolverines, Morsell drained his first seven shots before missing his first field goal midway through the second half. 

And although his offensive efforts occurred primarily around the rim, Morsell’s work was praiseworthy and served as another indication of his willingness to step up to any challenge. However, with the breadth of offensive talents available to this team, the Terps should never have to resort to the services of the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year to put points on the board. His energy should be focused on defense. 

It’s about time players like Hakim Hart and Donta Scott carve out more consistent roles in relief of Wiggins and Ayala when they can score in tandem as they usually do. The two sophomores showed promised earlier in the season and may need to show out again in the NCAA tournament. 

Bringing everything together will be the key in the NCAA tournament. 

When Maryland loses, it’s often a product of poor execution as opposed to overwhelming talent. And as the Terps’ semifinal hopes diminished rapidly, one thing was clear: execution was not all the way there. 

This wasn’t nearly as much of a product of the Wolverines greatness athletically and tactically. Rather, it was a result of the fact that the Terps couldn’t buy a shot in the final half, got out-rebounded all throughout and were terrorized by second chance points (15) — ultimately fumbling opportunities when they had them. 

The Wolverines did make tremendous shots and were lethal with ball screens, but odd defensive rotations did nothing but assist the Wolverines as they shot the Terps out of the gym. 

More than once, a Maryland defender went under high screen plays prompting easy three pointers from the likes of Mike Smith and Wagner. The offensive rebounding dominance may have been completely unavoidable on Maryland’s part, but far too many defensive possessions were deemed incomplete because of Maryland’s poor efforts at boxing out.

Maryland demonstrated it’s less than ideal efforts at the boards in Michigan’s first possession. As Eli Brooks first midrange attempt airballed right underneath the basket, Hart and Ayala watched as Hunter Dickinson leapt, practically unimpeded, to save the otherwise out of bounds shot to retain possession. 

A solid and concerted box out effort by the two guards could have easily given Maryland its first offensive possession, instead, Michigan converted its third shot in the possession after a second offensive rebound. 

Moreover, the second half shooting slump acted as an extension of the vanishing defense that had suffered a 16-2 run to close the first half. Maryland went 3-16 from range in the final 20 minutes and hit around a third of their shots from the field. 

“My last thing before we went out after halftime, I said, ‘We gotta have great possessions on offense,’” Turgeon said. “‘We gotta move the ball, we gotta share the ball, we gotta move our bodies, we gotta have a great shot every time so we can get our defense set.’ But we didn’t do that.”

A world in which Maryland is able to combine the defensive showing in the second half against Michigan State with the offensive fireworks of the first half against Michigan will be nothing more than a fantasy for as long as Maryland can’t secure the consistency they’ve been searching for all year. 

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