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How Maryland men’s basketball can become the best team in the country

There’s an easy solution to Maryland basketball’s inconsistent offense.

Maryland players huddle on the court.
Maryland men’s basketball has so much potential this year.

Maryland men’s basketball is one change away from becoming one of the best teams, and possibly the best team, in college hoops. The nation’s 11th-best defense is paired with just the No. 20 offense, a ranking that understates how gruesome the team can look trying to score. The fix to this problem is apparent. But whether or not the Terps unlock their full potential falls on the shoulders of head coach Mark Turgeon, who, in his ninth season, is falling into the same tendencies that plagued other equally talented Terrapins teams in the past.

Maryland’s 2019-20 season has been a rollercoaster. It started with a No. 7 ranking in the preseason poll, rose as high as No. 3 after some impressive wins, and dropped as low as No. 15 after back-to-back bad losses to Penn State and a wildly under-manned Seton Hall team. They now sit at No. 12.

Maryland is good. They knocked off a solid Marquette team on the first day of December by 21 points, led Indiana by as many 30, and beat Notre Dame by 21. They rank No. 8 in KenPom. But why aren’t they elite?

The answer is obvious.

Maryland basketball needs to run a four-guard offense

All year long Maryland’s thrived when it’s gone small. The Terps aren’t a deep team, but have five excellent players: Anthony Cowan (6’0), Eric Ayala (6’5), Darryl Morsell (6’5), Aaron Wiggins (6’6) and Jalen Smith (6’10). That’s Maryland best unit with five able defenders who can all push the tempo, launch from three or attack the basket. But over the last five games, it’s the group Turgeon’s used just third-most.

Take Maryland’s win over Indiana on Saturday as an example. In the second half, Maryland’s four guards and Smith started their rotation together at the 8:37 mark with a 15-point lead. Four minutes and 47 seconds later, their run ended with Maryland up 30. They didn’t even make a single three-point shot. Every bucket was either a dunk, layup or free throw.

Maryland’s loaded with crafty finishers, and quick-footed slashers. See what Wiggins, a big and long wing, is able to accomplish with three guards and Smith, a stretch-shooting five, staggered around the arc:

And the lane a lightning-quick Cowan can glide through with similar room:

And in transition? Forget about it.

Talking to Maryland guards Cowan, Morsell and Wiggins after their win over Indiana, one word kept coming up when discussing what they feel playing in this four-guard lineup: space.

“With four guards out there, you get to space out four guys around the perimeter,” Wiggins said. “So when you drive, the lane opens up a little bit. Spacing in a four-guard lineup is completely different compared to having a four- and five-man like Stix (Smith) and Chol (Marial) playing around the rim.” Spacing has become a buzzword in all of basketball, but is especially recognizable with this year’s Terps, who are notorious for going through long scoreless droughts with clunky bigs clogging the lane.

The statistical difference when Maryland plays the four-guard lineup is staggering

The four-guard lineup passes the eye test, and maybe even more so, the statistical test. For help on this, Jack Gilles of JG Trends Consulting helped log data when Maryland plays with Anthony Cowan, Eric Ayala, Darryl Morsell and Aaron Wiggins, and when it does not.

Maryland’s three most common guard lineups include those four playing together (183 possessions), Cowan, Ayala and Wiggins playing together (188 possessions), and Cowan, Morsell and Wiggins playing together (214 possessions). In the four-guard lineup, Maryland’s scoring 1.27 points per shot, an elite rate. In the lineup without Morsell, Maryland’s scoring 1.12 points per shot, a good rate. In the lineup without Ayala — this is typically when Maryland has goes big with Donta Scott, Ricky Lindo, Makhi or Makehl Mitchell — Maryland fades to 1.01 points per shot, a merely average rate. That’s a drastic difference.

Whatever statistical noise remains here is minimal, too. Hot shooting hasn’t favored the four-guard lineup. At this point, we know the Terps are a poor three-point shooting team, making just 30.7 percent of their three-point attempts (that ranks No. 262 in the country, yikes.) In the four-guard lineup, they’re shooting the same rate from distance, making 31 percent of 72 tries. So how’s Maryland scoring better with four guards?

The difference is in the shot quality. Remember, the best shots in basketball come around the rim, the next-best come from three, and the worst come from long two-point range. In 183 four-guard lineup possessions, Maryland’s taken 72 threes, 65 shots in the restricted zone and 36 two-point jumpers. In 31 more possessions using the lineup without Ayala, Maryland’s taken the same 72 threes (making 29 percent), just 62 shots in the restricted area (shooting six percent worse) and a whopping 55 two-point shots.

You might wonder what consequences come with playing four guards on the defensive end — the side of the ball Maryland’s been elite at for much of the season — and so far, those are minimal. The four-guard lineup is allowing .91 points per shot, the same as the lineup without Ayala. Morsell and Wiggins are both capable guarding up a position, and Ayala’s made strides from his freshman to sophomore year on that end as well. The Terps aren’t losing much when they drop in height.

Will Turgeon finally let his guards run free?

This is the single most frustrating part of Turgeon’s run at Maryland. He’s coached stellar defenses, recruited and developed several NBA talents, yet has never put a cohesive offense into play. It’s kept the Terps from top seeds in the tournament and bounced them from contention early. But now, the offense Maryland’s dreamt of is right here. Turgeon should be more likely to use it. With Makhi and Makhel Mitchell, two ill-fitting bigs, gone by way of transfer, his options have become even more limited.

After the win against Indiana, where the four-guard lineup with Smith torched the Hoosiers with a knockout five minutes, Turgeon was asked about when he’ll turn to that lineup. “It’s a gut feeling,” Turgeon said. “We’ll see as it goes on.”

How Turgeon utilizes this lineup will ultimately make or break the Terps’ season.