Where: XFINITY Center, College Park, Maryland
When: 2:00 p.m., EST, Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021
TV/Radio: CBS/Spartan Sports Radio
Maryland (14-10, 8-9): No. 29 (Kenpom)
1 - Eric Ayala (6’5” jr)
2 - Darryl Morsell (6’5” sr), Reese Mona (6’2” sr)
3 - Aaron Wiggins (6’6” jr), Hakim Hart (6’6” so)
4 - Donta Scott (6’7” so)
5 - Jairus Hamilton (6’8” jr), Galin Smith (6’9” sr)
Maryland has a seven-man rotation, with Mona getting spot minutes here and there (he is NOT a scoring threat). In the back-court, they return the terrific foursome from last season in Ayala, Wiggins, Scott, and Morsell. Those first three are really the guys to worry about (see below), though Jairus Hamilton, Maryland’s undersized stretch-big who has started of late, is a major threat from three-point range.
This team plays a lot of motion offense, spreading teams out, getting opposing teams’ bigs into mis-matches, driving and slashing, and generally relying on Ayala and Scott as the two hubs of the offense. This is not a great passing team (only ranked 144th in the nation for assist-rate), but they do create space and take shots off the bounce effectively — the only non-three-point shooters are Smith and Morsell, but they are both major threats around the paint and present serious positional physical challenges.
Maryland does not turn the ball over very often (though I think that Michigan State’s defenders may find some success forcing turnovers), the Terps get to the line at a solid rate, and they basically never crash the glass on offense, instead focusing on transition defense.
Like the Spartans, the Terrapins finds themselves on a winning-streak at the right time, book-ending two home wins over Nebraska with a win over fading Minnesota and the tough-nosed Rutgers squad that traded blow-outs with Michigan State earlier this season.
The Terps pose an interesting challenge for opponents: they are smaller, not a deep team, yet they score efficiently and defend well — a huge part of this is tempo. They play shockingly slow (ranked 312th in the nation for pace). That tempo helps them to mask their lack of size and inability to force turnovers or really dominate the paint offensively; curiously, Maryland is a solid mid-range team; of course, inexplicably, they are not a great free-throw shooting team. Beating the Terps requires toughness, some size on the interior, athletes to cause their three offensive focal-points problems, and the veteran savvy to be able to handle their offensive tendencies.
In Maryland’s last loss to Ohio State, Donta Scott and Darryl Morsell were forced into nine turnovers (those are guys you can dig down on and who are not natural play-makers — force them into being passers), Ayala was forced into a nightmare shooting night by Ohio State’s length and physical defense, and Ohio State’s shooters got free for a solid 10-for-26 performance from three-point range.
In their last game, a road win over Rutgers, the Terps did a great job crowding Ron Harper Jr. ensuring that Rutgers’ best player never got in a rhythm. Maryland also got a fourth scorer going in Morsell, whose activity on defense and aggression on offense helped ensure that the solid Rutgers wings— Paul Mulcahy and Caleb McConnell — were completely taken out of the game. This Rutgers game also provides an insight into the enigma that is Hakim Hart: a super talent who had a 33-point outing this season, but generally floats and has been held to single-digits in 17 games. Hart can become a flame-thrower, so do NOT let him get a rhythm.
Eric Ayala - Ayala is a really good player who has bounced back from his sophomore slump last year (he had a dreadful shooting year, inexplicably). He is Maryland’s leader and most-efficient back-court player. But he struggles with length and athletic defenders. Expect Aaron Henry to be all over him if he gets a bit of anything going on the offensive end.
Donta Scott - Scott is the real match-up question for the Spartans. He is simply a talent; multi-faceted, can shoot and score from anywhere, has a confidence about him, can handle it, and has improved markedly as a defender this season. He is a sub-70 percent free-throw shooter, so foul him if necessary — nothing free.
Aaron Wiggins - Wiggins has gained some consistency this season, which has boosted his NBA stock some of late. While he remains a not-so-efficient player, he is an athlete, acts and plays like a star, and will take and make big shots in big moments. Henry should get a crack at him to start the game, but Gabe Brown may get time with him as well.
The Spartans just have to keep playing good basketball. It’s really that simple. But given that actually doing that requires careful planning and attention to detail the main foci have to be the three key players I have mentioned.
Shut down Ayala and Scott and the Maryland offense becomes erratic with shot-quality falling off of a cliff. Ayala can be bodied a bit, and is not overly quick so I would not be surprised to see Rocket Watts and A.J. Hoggard actually hold their own against him. If they struggle Josh Langford and Henry will get the assignment. Morsell is a guy you play off of — dare him to shoot. Wiggins did not have a ton of success against Michigan State last season precisely because, after a good game against the Spartans as a freshman, the staff knew the danger he poses and told Aaron Henry to shut him down, which Henry did.
The trick, of course, is that there is only one Aaron Henry, which means that if Henry has to get shifted to Ayala, then Brown or Langford will have to deal with Wiggins — a task both should be able to just about accomplish. Keep an eye out for his jab-step into a lefty-drive with a spin back to his right.
The big challenge, which I alluded to earlier, is Donta Scott. He is everything Spartan fans and the staff hoped that Joey Hauser and Malik Hall would be this season, and, in a lot of ways, the three players form an eerie trio of overlapping skills. But that strangeness aside, Scott has to be shut down.
This should be the game we see Hauser and Hall come to the fore in the way that I expected them to in the preseason. Scott is a tough matchup, but he is not a dominant athlete, is not exceedingly long, nor incredibly strong or quick; he is good, but he is defensible for both Hall and Hauser. I also view both guys as needing to share the court some together precisely because Hamilton is such a perimeter threat.
While Hamilton has been starting, Maryland will play Smith plenty, and that should mean minutes for Marcus Bingham Jr. (I actually think that Bingham could play some against Donta Scott because Scott is bothered by length and isn’t overly quick or powerful). Forcing Maryland’s players to drive all the way to the shot-blocker will be an important part of a successful defense against the Terps, and getting Bingham (and the other centers) minutes will be crucial in getting offensive rebounds and the extremely thin Maryland front-court into foul trouble.
This team is rolling, Hauser and Hall played a superb final three minutes against the Buckeyes, and Hall and Watts had terrific games last year against the Terps. Watts and Hoggard should fare better against Ayala and Hart than they did in the last two contests, and I think Hall and Hauser will prove the difference-makers in this one. If those two along with Bingham (or whichever bigs get minutes) can win the front-court battle, then Henry and Langford should handle the rest.
MSU 75 UMD 66
Players play. Tough players win.