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NCAA Tournament First Round Matchup Preview: UConn Huskies vs. Maryland Terrapins

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An in-depth look at how the Huskies match up against a Maryland team that’s been playing their best basketball lately.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Maryland vs Michigan Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

UConn men’s basketball’s first-round game on Saturday pits two storied programs against one another in a showdown that could play out like a Sweet 16-caliber contest. Maryland, the 10-seed, is 6-3 in its last nine games and has some matchup advantages over 7-seed UConn that they could exploit to send the Huskies packing.

Additionally, the people want to know: Is there any residual bad blood between Hurley and Turgeon? Can Bouknight summon the ancient energy of past Husky greats? Is the Big 10 really as deep as they say? Will Eric Ayala regret not coming to UConn, or will Adama Sanogo regret not choosing Maryland?

Here’s some analysis to provide potential answers to those questions:

A look at the Maryland offense

Maryland is dead last in the Big 10 in scoring offense, but that league was a murderers’ row reminiscent of the old Big East. Teams with subpar conference statistics tend to be a product of an elite conference and could be more formidable than the numbers appear.

One thing’s for sure; if UConn can keep Maryland’s backcourt in check, they will be in good shape. Terps head coach Mark Turgeon, when he’s not trying to fight Juwan Howard, looks for his team to slow the pace down and maximize every possession—Maryland is 335th in possessions per game.

Halfway through the year, Turgeon handed the distribution reins to Hakim Hart, and let junior guards Eric Ayala and Aaron Wiggins — both Big 10 Honorable Mention recipients — operate off the ball. Those two combo guards are run through every imaginable pick-and-roll, with Ayala being one of the best in the country at finishing in traffic. Look for Wiggins to get freed up by pin downs and stagger screens. Isaiah Whaley and Sanogo’s hard hedging will need to run Maryland’s guards off their course and away from the paint.

The Huskies will also have to stay close to pick-and-pop threat Donta Scott, who shoots 43% from downtown and will pull Whaley away from the paint. However, the Huskies have plenty of experience with that in the Big East from playing Seton Hall and Marquette. Ayala and Wiggins, along with senior guard Darryl Morsell, account for 57.8% of the team’s scoring and played key roles on the 2018-19 Maryland team that lost in the final seconds to LSU in the East Region Round of 32. They’re all 6-foot-5 or taller, but UConn has had success doubling certain matchups in the post. Look for them to continue sending help if Maryland’s backcourt starts to use its size advantage.

Turgeon wants his guards to attack the rim with reckless abandon and get to the line. Maryland is 7-2 when attempting more than 20 free throws but 0-5 when shooting fewer than 10. UConn will need to avoid silly fouls like over-the-backs off free throws to prevent momentum from freebies on the line. If UConn’s defense continues to rotate and pressure at a high level, they should have no problem grinding down Maryland’s possessions.

Breaking down UConn’s offense

The Three-Man-Weave podcast had a funny little gag regarding UConn’s offense:

Maryland ranks second in the Big 10 in both field goal percentage defense and scoring defense. It all starts with Morsell, the Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year. The 6-foot-5 senior will draw the Bouknight matchup, so it will be imperative for Hurley to get his sophomore star easy looks. Maryland will play mostly man, but Turgeon is not beyond switching to a press-and-zone when the situation calls for it. If that happens, look for Tyrese Martin, Tyler Polley, Whaley, Bouknight, or Andre Jackson to serve as the high-post flash.

RJ Cole — averaging 15 points, 5.1 assists, and 1.3 steals per game in the last eight games — has blossomed in the pick-and-roll as of late and finished second in the Big East in assist-turnover ratio. If he’s healthy, which he looks to be as of Thursday, look for the junior to probe the soft spots in Maryland’s defense.

This is where UConn must attack the Terps’ size advantage in the backcourt and could definitely Cole’s craftiness when it comes to sealing off contact and drawing fouls. If he’s out, the ballhandlers like Jalen Gaffney, Bouknight, Martin and Jackson will need to turn the corner downhill on screens and handoffs to get by that first defender. Gaffney in particular, who is prone to bouts of indecisiveness, will need to attack off the dribble and use his athleticism to dictate the pace. Given Maryland’s size on the perimeter, they often go small and switch everything.

A big part of UConn’s improved pick-and-roll sets has been the dump downs to Sanogo one or two passes after the high ball screen. When the freshman — whose field goal percentage of .56.8% is good for fifth in the Big East, by the way — is cooking down low, UConn’s perimeter spacing becomes much more balanced.

The Huskies will want to exploit that matchup between Sanogo and 6-foot-9 senior Galin Smith. While Maryland has battled against high-profile bigs all season in the Big 10, Hurley should still be feeding his talented big man as much as possible. UConn jumped out to a 13-2 run against. Creighton last week mostly because the Bluejays had no answer for the gas giant (get it? Because Bill Raftery pronounces it Sunoco.) and it’s become quite clear why he leads the team in post-ups.

If Bouknight is in a rhythm, Cole/Gaffney pick their spots accordingly, and Sanogo keeps churning butter down low, the Huskies should be in a good spot.

Keys to the Game

Fight Night: Bouknight vs. Morsell

Bouknight has struggled at times against long, physical defenders like Marquette’s Koby McEwen and Creighton’s Damien Jefferson. Morsell fits that mold, and if there’s one weakness to Bouknight’s game, it’s that his handle can get a little wobbly in halfcourt sets as he looks to get by his man. Stalled possessions with Bouknight taking too many dribbles could doom UConn’s offensive flow in this rare boxing match that starts before midnight. Hurley loves to get Bouknight downhill on handoffs or have him setting screens then flaring out in isolation. He also loves the fake ball screen curl that usually ends in a lob, like so:

Can UConn generate enough of those looks?

The best way to avoid these halfcourt battles is to get the ball out in transition. If anyone not named Sanogo, Whaley, or Carlton rebound the ball, they should lead the fast break or find Bouknight, who is elite at attacking the rim in transition.

Board Man Gets Paid (again)

The rebounding theory has become tried and true. UConn was outrebounded by Creighton 50-33 last week, so now in every UConn loss but one they’ve lost the rebounding battle. It’s especially important Saturday, given Maryland’s ability to slow the game down and limit possessions. The Terps are terrible at rebounding on the offensive end, ranking 327th in offensive rebounding percentage on KenPom. The Huskies will need to take advantage and keep Maryland to one shot on offense as much as possible if the Terps try to slow things down.

In a wacky way, Maryland’s ability to force tough contested looks could play to UConn’s biggest strength. If the Huskies turn bricks into bunnies on the offensive glass, then Maryland’s biggest strength ironically is canceled out. It could be a big bounce-back game for Martin, the conference leader in offensive rebounds per game.

Who Steps Up?

Maryland has guys that remember their 2019 heartbreak while there’s not a single player on UConn’s team that has played in the NCAA tournament. UConn looked understandably shaky when Cole was knocked out. If he can’t go, or Bouknight isn’t on his game, can a committee of Gaffney, Martin, and Jackson step up and fill the leadership void in the backcourt?

Prediction

UConn 65, Maryland 60 in a knock-down, drag-out fight the Huskies are well-equipped to play.