November 27, 2013

Tourney Takeaways: Paradise Jam

The Terps went down St. Thomas looking for answers. While their performance was far from perfect, they come home with three wins and a season that looks to be back on track.

If Oregon State turns out to be the sleeper than some pundits expect, the Terps really didn't do the damage to their season that some might have thought. Wins over Northern Iowa and Providence are nothing to sneeze at, and with Ohio State looming next Wednesday, there is still ample opportunity to sufficiently build the non-conference portion of their resume before the ACC kicks off in a couple of weeks.

Before they face the No. 7 Buckeyes in the Big Ten/ACC challenge, Maryland has a tune up on Friday night when they host Morgan State at the Comcast Center. As we head into the holiday, here are my five takeaways from their performance at the Paradise Jam:

Improving defense

The defense was the hot button issue for the Terps heading into the tournament. In their two losses, they scored a combined 160 points, which should be enough to win regardless of the opponent. Oregon State roasted them in College Park, and Mark Turgeon headed south intent on fixing it.

On the surface, it looks like he got the job done. The Terps entered tournament play giving up 70.7 points per game in their first three. In St. Thomas, they gave up an average of 53.6, including only 52 to a capable Providence offense. At 64.2 points per game, they now rank 62nd in the nation through six games. Yes, Marist was impotent offensively but the efforts against the Panthers and Friars should give fans hope that the days of surrendering 90 are over.

So how did they do it?

Well, Turgeon made the dubious statement leading up to the tournament that rim protection was overrated and the Terps play in St. Thomas didn't do much to debunk it. Maryland blocked only eight shots at the Paradise Jam compared to 14 in the three games prior. What they did do better was defend the perimeter, and more specifically the three-point shot.

Before they hit the Caribbean, opponents were shooting an egregious 48 percent from downtown against the Terps. You can't win like that. In St. Thomas, Maryland's opponents shot 22.8 percent from three. Was some of it just a result a sloppy play? Sure. Regardless, the difference between those numbers means Turgeon's unit was doing something right. Overall, Maryland's opponents shot just 30.7 percent from the field. Mission accomplished, now they just need to bring that component stateside.

What point guard problems?

Maryland's personnel issues are no secret. Even with Seth Allen in the lineup, the returning roster lacked a pure point guard. Fans were hoping that freshman Roddy Peters was ready to be that guy, and with the struggles of the Terps' offense prior to the Paradise Jam, so was Turgeon as he inserted Peters into the starting lineup against Marist.

The Peters experiment lasted only one game, but to be fair, the freshman still averaged as much burn (18 minutes per game) in the final two games as he got in the one he started. There was no breakout by the freshman, however. Peters in the islands looked a lot like Peters stateside: occasionally brilliant, but still inconsistent and problematic on defense.

What did change for Maryland was the play of team leader Dez Wells, who seemed to rediscover his identity in St. Thomas and was named tournament MVP. His scoring average actually decreased at the Paradise Jam, but he notched the final eight points for the Terps in the title game and most important, only turned the ball over twice against Northern Iowa and Providence.

Wells had the ball in his hands a lot in St. Thomas. He pushed the pace in all three games, getting out on the fast break and helping the Terps get easy buckets. Under his guidance, the Terps only gave the ball away 33 times in the tournament, compared to 45 the three games prior. This had to be a welcome sight for Turgeon, who was forced to bench his best player because of turnovers two weeks ago against Abilene Christian.

Struggling at the line

The good news for Maryland was that they were able to get to the charity stripe 68 times in three games in St. Thomas. The bad news is they made only 39 of those 68 attempts, for an inadequate average of 57.3 percent. While a lot of blame will be put on the shoulders of Charles Mitchell, who shot 4-for-13 from the line, the rest of the roster didn't exactly lit it up at 63.6 percent.

The Terps are now shooting 62.8 percent from the line, good for 309th in the country. Mitchell, Peters, and Shaquille Cleare are all regulars shooting at or under 60 percent. Teams are piling up fouls with the new officiating guidelines, so with the grueling ACC schedule approaching this is a not a small problem. It is something that has to get better for Maryland or it is going to cost them games.

Defensive depth

Turgeon said last week that he had to find the guts to play guys like Varun Ram and Damonte Dodd early in games in order to build 'defensive depth' that would keep his starters fresh down the stretch. While he definitely made a point to play Ram in St. Thomas, Dodd was nowhere to be found. The freshman played only 12 minutes, all against overmatched Marist.

To be fair, the Terps were dominant defensively at the Paradise Jam, so it's possible that Turgeon deemed Dodd unnecessary. Ram, on the other hand, was a pest in the islands. He played an eye-opening 42 minutes in the tournament, including a combined 23 against formidable Northern Iowa and Providence. He scored only six total points, but his energy was apparent throughout, especially in the title game when he snatched three steals and somehow, at 5-foot-9, managed to grab three rebounds. His playing time is something to monitor moving forward.

Turgeon played only eight players - his seven regulars and Ram - in the final two games in St. Thomas.

Smotrycz settling in

Wells certainly deserved the tournament MVP award considering he was all that prevented a Maryland collapse in the title game, but those honors just as easily could have gone to Evan Smotrycz, who was named to the All-Tournament team. Smotrycz played only 17 minutes in the Marist blowout, largely due to the score and some foul trouble. But in the final two games, he may have been the best player on the floor for the Terps.

The Michigan transfer went 3-for-6 from downtown against Northern Iowa, scoring 20 points and grabbing nine rebounds in a game where Maryland's traditional big men - Mitchell and Cleare - were invisible. Smotrycz went cold down the stretch against Providence, but he was a key reason the Maryland lead ballooned to 19 halfway through the second half. He finished with 13 points, 11 rebounds and three assists and played all but three minutes.

There is perhaps no better measure of relevance than playing time and in Maryland's four non-lopsided contests, Smotrycz has averaged over 34 minutes a game. He may have only played six games in Maryland red, but its clear Turgeon already trusts him.

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