NCAA Weekly, Vol. 4: Maryland is playing bully ball
yes it is acceptable to be afraid of turtles
Back in the summer when I was brainstorming a few article ideas here and there, I thought about running one out on the concept of who’s currently playing what I’d deem Bully Ball. You know the type of team: big beefy frontcourt, not a ton in the way of shooting, and a metric ton of offensive rebounds. The most Bully Ball teams over the last five years have been teams like Houston, West Virginia, North Carolina, Duke, and Kentucky. None of those are surprising.
However: a new Bully Ball challenger has entered the arena. I have to say that I didn’t see them coming at all.
Maryland, a team now coached by Kevin Willard after Willard spent 12 years at Seton Hall, is doing some pretty remarkable things so far. They’re 6-0, including a 28-point upset win over Saint Louis. They’re #13 nationally in OREB%, 11th in 2PT%, 66th in FT Rate, and almost never get shots blocked. Also, they’re 254th in 3PT% and Synergy rates them out in the 26th percentile as a jump-shooting group.
How did we get here? Willard’s history is more that of a more-than-the-sum-of-his-parts guy, one who didn’t specialize at any one thing offensively and built defensive unites that blocked shots and forced tough twos. If Maryland had overachieved on defense this year, I wouldn’t have been terribly surprised. (A lot of defensive improvement can be had in simply organizing a man-to-man unit better.)
Among preseason top 100 teams on KenPom, no team has taken a bigger forward jump from their offensive preseason projection than Maryland. They’ve got plenty of prove-it games to come; after playing Louisville tonight, their next four games are all Quadrant 1 opportunities against teams ranked 22nd, 40th, 3rd, and 12th in KenPom. Despite that, there’s very real reason to be interested in Willard’s newfound schoolyard whoopings, particularly a pair dealt out to top 50 teams Saint Louis (by 28) and Miami (by 18).
What’s been the source for this? It’s two-fold: a deeply experienced roster playing to its strengths, as well as a coach seemingly willing to adjust his personal philosophies to get the most out of what he has. Whatever mix of answers you have, this is a surprising and entertaining team that I’m intrigued to watch as the season ages.
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NUMBERS ON THE BOARDS
In some aspect, this wasn’t entirely shocking to see coming. At one point during Willard’s tenure at Seton Hall - essentially 2015 to 2018 - the Pirates were Bully Ball in training. They ranked 37th or higher in OREB% three years in a row, they’d get to the line a lot, and they very much couldn’t shoot a basketball to save their lives.
However, the fundamentals for SHU were different. The heart of the best team during that run, Willard’s 2017-18 group, was led by Khadeen Carrington (6’4” PG) and Myles Powell (6’2” SG), along with center Angel Delgado. Those Seton Hall teams posted up quite a bit, but they weren’t generating a ton of great looks at the rim or in the paint. This group Willard has is a bit different.
We have to cover a key part of the story here: Maryland had talent before Willard took the job from the departing Mark Turgeon. There’s real reasons why the Terrapins started last season in the top 25 on almost every predictive analytics site out there. Guys like Donta Scott and Hakim Hart (two starters), as well as seventh-man Julian Reese, decided to return for that team and this one. Those are three of Maryland’s current starters, so Willard had a good base to build off of.
The unusual thing is that all three are 6’8” or taller, and only Scott had a track record as a proven shooter. Could you play all three together, even if they were (on paper) three of the four best players on the team? Sure you can, if you use that height to your advantage. Maryland does extremely well.
Here’s an example from the Miami game fairly early on. The Hurricanes came in well aware that Maryland wanted to hammer the boards to create an advantage with their larger frontcourt. On this three-point attempt, by the time the ball nears the rim, Miami has four guys (one is obscured) in rebounding position.
That’s a +1 paint advantage for Miami. (#0, Donald Carey, could get the rebound if it takes a wild bounce, but that’s obviously pretty unlikely.) The problem is that Maryland is taller, and Maryland creates a paint advantage of their own by having 6’8” Donta Scott run in from the perimeter to contest the rebound opportunity. His boxout partner here is 6’0” Nijel Pack, who is nearly 50 pounds lighter. In this unusual scenario for most teams that’s common for Maryland, who do you think won?
I think you can guess.
I noticed something similar happening in several moments from the two Maryland games I watched in full. Because of the personnel they’ve got, the Terrapins are able to create problems on the boards that a lot of teams haven’t handled well so far. Scott prefers to hang on or near the perimeter, but he’s the second-most aggressive rebounder on the roster behind Julian Reese. When Scott is sprinting in from outside, he’s frequently getting boxed out by guys who are anywhere from 3-5 inches shorter and less heavier than he is. This is a matchup problem, and Willard and team have exploited it very well so far.
Could this lead to problems down the road for Maryland? Certainly. The downside of overcommitting to offensive rebounding is that when you don’t get the rebound, the opponent has elevated transition potential and may even possess a numbers advantage if you’ve sent too many guys. (It’s not a coincidence that the team who held Maryland off the boards the most, Western Carolina, scored the second-most transition points the Terps have given up this year.) Still, this is a strategy that’s kind of intoxicating to watch and could be deadly against some smaller Big Ten opponents. (In particular, I want to see how Penn State counteracts it.)
BELOW THE LINE ($): snappin’ turtles
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