Opposition failing when put to test by Terps' defense

Changing looks on `D' helps propel men's team to its first Final Four

NCAA Tournament

The Final Four

March 29, 2001|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- Guard Steve Blake likes the perplexed looks he sees when opposing players think they have the Terps' defense figured out, only to find something different.

"We're doing a little bit of everything in trying to confuse teams this year," Blake said.

By that, Blake means the Terps are not pressing for 40 minutes (like Arkansas), sitting back in a zone (like Temple) or playing strictly man-to-man defense (like Duke).

Instead, it has been a combination of those defenses that has opposing teams experiencing frustrating shooting days against the Terps.

Maryland is 10-1 in its past 11 games and will face Duke in the NCAA tournament semifinals Saturday in Minneapolis.

While the offensive execution has been outstanding during this stretch, Maryland's defense also deserves credit for propelling the school to its first Final Four.

Only first-round opponent George Mason has shot over 45 percent since the Feb. 14 home loss to Florida State. The Terps have held seven of the 11 opponents to shooting in the 30 percent range. Two have come in the NCAA tournament against Georgia State and Georgetown, games that showcased the Terps diversity.

Both of those teams made 20 of 65 shots (31 percent). Georgia State had its problems with the full-court pressure, while Georgetown struggled against Maryland's zone, something coach Gary Williams had been hesitant to use in the past. But with 6-foot-9 forward Terence Morris, who plays at the top of the zone, Williams has an athletic player who makes it difficult for guards to see and pass around.

Although he has used more zones this season than usual, Williams stands by his belief in man-to-man, pressure defense.

"We've tried to develop our man-to-man this year where we're really good at it," Williams said. "But against Georgetown, we were able to play some zone. So that helped us. But you want one defense as your best defense, and that is our man-to-man."

It is the one the Terps use most of the game. When the starters are in, center Lonny Baxter and Morris clog up the middle as well as any combo in the Atlantic Coast Conference, while Blake and Juan Dixon pressure the ball up top. Most games, Baxter and Morris do not consistently allow post players to gain good position, and very little is lost when backups Mike Mardesich and Tahj Holden check in.

The frontcourt players are also skilled at blocking shots, allowing the guards to play up close. Stanford guard Casey Jacobsen, for instance, was hounded into a 4-for-11 shooting performance against the Terps on Saturday.

Often times, teams that like to play at an up-tempo like the Terps have trouble in a slow-down, half-court game. The opposite is true with Maryland, which seems to relish showing off its half-court defense.

It also helps that Dixon is one of the quickest players in the country, leading the ACC in steals with 2.7 a game, and backup swingman Danny Miller, at 6-8, is a skilled defender who can cover guards and forwards.

"A big part of our success is our ability to play defense," Williams said. "We went through a period where we weren't playing particularly well. We worked harder, wanting to be a good defensive team. We're playing good defense right now."

Duke can attest to that. The Blue Devils have had some of their worst shooting performances of the season against the Terps, shooting 37 and 36 percent over the past two encounters, respectively.

More importantly, the Terps limited Duke to a combined 33 percent (22 of 66) from three-point territory in splitting those meetings. Maryland once allowed Clemson to sink 13 three-pointers in a 104-92 win back in January, but have since dedicated itself to not allowing teams to get good looks from behind the arc.

"We don't let people shoot open shots anymore," forward Byron Mouton said. "Earlier in the season, a lot of teams were getting open looks. Anybody can hit an open shot. But now we make people shoot tough shots."

And if players attempt to drive? "Guys think they have a clear shot at the basket, and then they see the help and become terrified," Mouton said. "And we get a lot of steals in the paint. Normally, you get steals in the passing lane. But most of our steals come in the lane when guys try to penetrate. It is because our defense is so compact."

During its 1-5 midseason slump, the Terps held only Clemson to under 40 percent shooting from the field. Not surprisingly, it was the lone victory. The worst showing came at North Carolina where the Tar Heels shot 58 percent from the field and made 7 of 10 three-pointers in Maryland's 14-point loss.

Soon after, the defense improved, and so did the fortunes of the team.

"We've done a great job of team defense, that is why we are playing so well," Blake said. "A lot of those games before, we weren't playing great defense. That is why we were losing. But we definitely concentrate on the defensive end and stepped that game up."

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