Maryland basketball is in a rut, but not ready to panic

Photo Courtesy of Terrapin Hoops Twitter

Maryland men’s basketball succumbed to one of the brightest Big Ten defenses in a 64-50 slugfest at the hands of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights on Thursday night.

Despite an 8-0 start to the fall, the once mighty Terps have since gone 2-5, including three losses to conference opponents, as they now sit 1-3 in Big Ten play. Things certainly look bleak, and the question, of whether it’s time to panic, is as prevalent as ever. 

Coach Kevin Willard spoke earlier this week of his team’s bad habit of poor first halves leading to insurmountable deficits, and this potentially deadly flaw surfaced once more against the Scarlet Knights. Only because of Rutgers’ almost equally poor offensive showing and a late Terps shooting spree did Maryland enter the half only down 7, but they never got within four points in the second half, ultimately falling with a score properly representing a decisive win.

The evening wasn’t without coaching adjustments. Willard removed guard Don Carey from the starting lineup one game after reinstating him in favor of freshman Noah Batchelor for his first collegiate start. Similarly to Carey’s last time coming off the bench two games back, his shooting was one of the only factors keeping the Terps in the contest when everyone else ran cold, as he hit four of his team’s eight threes.

“Don played really well the last few times he came off the bench,” coach Willard said. “He was able to come in and feel free, instead of being such a focus and having one of the best defenders on him.”

Fellow guard Jahmir Young was the only other perimeter player who showed up, but he had a much stranger outing. He entered the half scoreless on five shots but made up for it in the final 20 minutes with 13 points on 5-8 shooting from that point on. He was who the Terps looked to in the final quarter as they continuously threatened Rutgers’ lead, succeeding against a vaunted Scarlet Knights’ front line.

Rutgers, for their part, followed Maryland’s lead of a dismal offensive first half before a lively second period, but outplayed the Terps any time the game drew within reach. Guards Paul Mulcahy and Cam Spencer laid 27 points on the visitors, with Mulcahy going a perfect 6-6 from the field and Spencer, who leads the conference in steals, picking up three more. 

Turnovers served as the most horrifying column on the box score. Even though both teams combined for 33, Maryland led the charge with 20, a season-high. Some of those arrived through clumsy gaffs such as offensive fouls or traveling, but the most egregious instances arose when the Terps simply threw the ball out of bounds due to a lack of communication, or, worse when they got their pockets picked by the Scarlet Knights, which happened 11 different times.

Not all was bad for the Terps, as their once highly regarded defense was the biggest reason why they had a puncher’s chance throughout a decent chunk of this matchup. They showed their own active hands by collecting nine steals of their own and held Rutgers under 50% shooting.

Just looking at their last game alone, some of Maryland’s biggest problems could be forecasted. Michigan blew the Terps out in an 81-46 smothering, one admittedly much worse than this last one, but it was headlined by star Wolverine center Hunter Dickinson who subbed out with several minutes boasting 32 points and 12 rebounds. Julian Reese, serving as his primary defender, fouled out that night with two points and two rebounds.

Reese, Maryland’s starting center, has demonstrated a knack for failing to assert himself in big games against bigger opponents. The 6’9, 230 lb sophomore started off the season strong, culminating in a 24-point, 10-rebound night against Coppin State during the thick of their hot streak. 

He has since seen his numbers slip as drastically as anyone since the Power Five schools started showing up, and has averaged 6.3 points and 5.6 rebounds to go along with 3.5 personal fouls since the Terps played their first ranked opponent and conference rival in Illinois eight games ago. He’s started both of his last two games after being temporarily hampered with a shoulder injury, but as of recently hasn’t been the defensive anchor the Terps have hoped for.

The Rutgers game demonstrated the mismatch he’s proving himself to be against fellow conference big men. In the first half, Rutgers’ leading scorer and rebounder Clifford Omoruyi roped in nine boards, while Reese didn’t get a single one in identical minutes. The second half saw a better showing, but Omoruyi still collected 13 over the game, and Reese saw himself outrebounded by teammate Ian Martinez, a 6’3 guard off the bench. Team rebounding is critical to the success of this team, but it’s important that Maryland’s big man gets more than six rebounds in a game of this magnitude.

The regression of Maryland basketball appears closely linked with Julian Reese’s performances, but Donta Scott’s struggles go back even further. He continues to play without rhythm, having shot above 50% in only one of his last ten games. In all three of his team’s losses to Big Ten opponents, he’s failed to scratch double-figures once, shooting 8-34 through that stretch. 

Out-of-conference opponents on the fringes of Division I such as Western Carolina and Saint Louis once existed to break up Maryland’s tough opponents, but now appear to have merely capitalized on a padded schedule. A favorably timed Saint Peter’s matchup helped the Terps snap out of a three-game slump, but the Big Ten portion of the schedule provides little to no breaks. 

If Maryland wants to return to its winning ways, it’ll need its key players to step up when it counts. Reese will continue to suffer from numerous unfavorable matchups as a young and slightly undersized big, but Scott can easily help bring this team’s head back above water if he can rediscover his shooting stroke and scoring touch. The question now is whether that will happen before the Terps fall out of contention, which is a possibility at this rate.

“I have the utmost confidence in these guys,” coach Willard said. “We’ll get it going offensively. I’m not so worried.”