Maryland men’s basketball’s road struggles bring concern as postseason approaches

Photo by Maryland Athletics

No. 21 Maryland men’s basketball slouched off the Ohio State basketball court on Wednesday night with yet another road loss to add to their odd record. Despite handling all 10 Big Ten teams that had the misfortune of playing in College Park, the Terps hold a 1-8 conference road record and look like a completely different team when playing outside Xfinity Center.

“In this conference, with the home court advantages, with the way students are, and as good as the players are, it’s really hard to win on the road,” Maryland Coach Kevin Willard said last month.

The Terps’ 62-73 loss encapsulated what many other conference teams have experienced. The defeat made Maryland one of five Big Ten teams with an 11-8 conference record, followed closely by a few teams which include 9-10 Penn State, who the Terps play on Sunday to close out the regular season. After No. 5 Purdue, which sits at an untouchable 13-5, the conference is a rat race.

The Terps showed positive signs that they could be ready for a tournament run, but there was plenty of ugly to sift through.

Julian Reese was sensational against Ohio State, recording his fourth straight double-double with 17 points and 12 rebounds. He’s averaged 12.5 rebounds in that stretch, including an incredible 4.3 offensive rebounds per night. Willard has stood by his developing big man as Reese matched up against the many dominant centers of the Big Ten, and he finally got a chance to inflict some damage of his own on the even younger Felix Okpara on Wednesday.

Guards Jahmir Young and Hakim Hart were lucky to have an aggressive Reese that night. They shot 1-6 from three-point range, and their efficiency didn’t improve as they approached the rim. The Buckeyes’ defense purposely honed in on them whenever they penetrated.

Had it not been for Ian Martinez keeping the offense afloat in the second half, at one point scoring eight in a row for the Terps, and Don Carey pouring in 14 efficient points, this would have likely been a blowout. Scoring contributions from those two, in particular, will be big down the stretch of the spring, and it was refreshing to see role players stepping up.

Maryland’s outside shooting has been one of the main talking points about the difference in its home and road splits. The Terps showed what they’re capable of against Northwestern last Sunday at home, when they shot a season-high of 63.6%, while sinking a season-high 14, and would benefit greatly if they manage to sustain the 44.7% they’ve averaged for the last six games.

Young has emerged as one of Maryland’s best three-point shooters, draining 47.6% of his threes in the last six games. This is about equal with his two-point percentage of 47.9% over the season. Usually, a slasher’s three-ball coming around helps his inside scoring, and if he regains his otherworldly finishing ability, he’ll return to regularly dropping 20 points in meaningful games.

The senior point guard is 6-foot-1, which could help explain how big defenders have blocked or frustrated his shots in the paint. Hakim Hart, though, is a much more substantial 6-foot-6, and had even more trouble than Young against the Buckeyes. He finished 2 for 7 with a single assist, and was invisible for long stretches.

For big games, basketball legend Pat Riley once said “use eight, rotate seven, play six and trust five.” 

In the waning days of the regular season, Willard has trimmed his rotation to who he’s comfortable with. The starting lineup of Young, Carey, Hart, Reese and Donta Scott will all play at least 25 minutes. Martinez and Patrick Emilien each provide necessary defense and ball movement off the bench, and that’s about as deep as Willard is willing to go. Jahari Long is the only other player who’s entered games for sustained periods recently, but rarely for more than 10 minutes per contest.

The top three scorers—Young, Hart and Scott—will play close to 35 minutes in the tournament, joined by Reese until he and his 3.2 fouls per game require temporary benchings. Emilien is the only backup forward who’ll see important minutes, and Martinez and Carey will alternate at the other guard spot. Playmakers Young and Hart take the pressure off each other, with one of them in charge offensively at all times. This rotation has played a major role in the team’s 20-10 overall record, and now it’s up to them to put it together outside of their home territory.

Willard is running out of time to figure out why the Terps fall off a cliff when not surrounded by the comfort of their own crowd. Maryland is done hosting games for the rest of the regular and postseason.

If these guys want to make a statement in the playoffs, they’ll need to learn how to steal games on the road. They’ll have one last try in the regular season against Penn State in the biggest game of the year for the Nittany Lions. For the Terps, one more road loss could mean tumbling down the standings.