Could Maryland’s turnover problem cut short a potential tournament run?
Maryland has a turnover problem.
It’s evident in the 13 turnovers the Terrapins average per game. It’s evident in their turnover rate, which ranks No. 261 on kenpom.com and means they give the ball away on 19.7% of their possessions. And it was evident on Wednesday night, when the Terps had to overcome 18 turnovers to edge lowly Nebraska on the road, 70–65.
Wednesday represented the ninth time in the last 10 games that the Terrapins committed at least 10 turnovers. In conference play, they’ve only managed single digits in the stat twice: in a narrow win over Penn State in December and in a Jan. 23 loss at Michigan State. Both times they finished with nine.
The fourth-ranked team in the country, Maryland is highly talented and has five players averaging double figures in scoring: sophomore guard Melo Trimble, junior forward Robert Carter Jr., freshman forward Diamond Stone, senior wing Jake Layman and senior guard Rasheed Sulaimon. But for a team with the ability to hang 100 on an Ohio State squad with a solid defense, as it did on Jan. 16, the Terps get in their own way on offense far too often, and it is limiting their potential.
Some of this is naturally the result of defensive pressure from opponents, but some of it is simply carelessness with the ball. Other times, it seems like the team is a bit overwhelmed by the environment it’s playing in.
When Maryland traveled to Chapel Hill for a marquee matchup with North Carolina on Dec. 1, it looked rattled in the opening minutes and racked up 13 turnovers in the first half alone, finishing with 22. Against Connecticut at Madison Square Garden a week later, the Terrapins coughed it up 15 times in a close win. In its victory over Wisconsin at a packed Kohl Center, in which Trimble hit a game-winning three-pointer right before the buzzer, the number was 16.
Maryland appeared to be making strides recently when it played back-to-back key Big Ten games, against Michigan State and Iowa, and committed nine and 10 turnovers, respectively. But then it went on the road to Ohio State and Nebraska, two middle-of-the-pack conference teams, and lost the ball a combined 32 times. That’s not good for a team that has Final Four aspirations and otherwise has the talent to back them up.
Consider this: The last Final Four team that finished with an offensive turnover percentage outside kenpom.com’s top 200 was Louisville in 2011–12. The Cardinals finished at No. 211 in the stat that year with a 20.8% percentage, but had the nation’s No. 1 adjusted defensive efficiency to mitigate it. The Terps’ defense has been top 15 good this year, but Louisville’s in 2011–12 was on another level.
Even more damning? No Final Four team in the kenpom.com era, which started in 2002, has finished outside the top 250 in offensive turnover percentage. Compare Maryland’s turnover percentage to the other current AP top 10 teams and you can see how the Terrapins, and to a lesser extent, Xavier, are the outliers.
|school||offensive turnover %||Kenpom.com rank|
|No. 1 Oklahoma||17.5%||113|
|No. 2 UNC||14.9%||11|
|No. 3 Villanova||16.8%||75|
|No. 4 Maryland||19.7%||261|
|No. 5 Iowa||14.2%||4|
|No. 6 Xavier||18.4%||184|
|No. 7 Kansas||16.8%||72|
|No. 8 Texas A&M||17.6%||125|
|No. 9 Virginia||15.5%||23|
|No. 10 Michigan State||17.6%||118|
*Note: When teams are tied in a stat, kenpom.com ranks them alphabetically, explaining how Villanova and Kansas have different rankings
Part of the problem is Maryland’s guard depth. Trimble and Sulaimon are the team’s only reliable ballhandlers, and the only other guard in the main rotation, Jared Nickens, is a three-point specialist. The only other options Mark Turgeon has at guard are 5'9" defensive specialist Varun Ram and junior college transfer Jaylen Brantley, who both play sparingly. Shooting guard Dion Wiley, who sustained a meniscus injury before the season and will miss the whole year, would have been a big help in the backcourt.
Trimble and Sulaimon combine for 4.6 turnovers per game, while the starting five as a whole combine for 9.7. The Terrapins play at a fairly slow tempo, so these thrown away possessions are especially valuable. Additionally, three of Maryland’s starters (Trimble, Layman and Sulaimon) take at least 50% of their shots from behind the three-point arc, but only Sulaimon is shooting better than 36% from there. Carter and Stone are big weapons inside, but a tendency at times to over-rely on three-point attempts that aren’t falling compounded with the turnovers has been the team’s biggest vulnerability.
Turgeon’s most efficient lineup (out of ones that have logged at least 50 possessions on the season) has been Stone, Layman, Nickens, Trimble and Sulaimon, while his most commonly used lineup by far is similar, only replacing Nickens with Carter. The Stone-Layman-Carter-Trimble-Sulaimon lineup has been better defensively, holding opponents to 0.13 fewer points per possession.
The good news for Maryland on the turnover front is that there’s still time to improve. While it’s starting to inch nearer, the NCAA tournament is still more than a month away. But old habits can be hard to break, and the Terrapins also struggled with turnovers at times last season. It eventually bit them in the tourney, when they were matched up with West Virginia and its stifling press in the Round of 32 and committed a whopping 23 turnovers in a 10-point loss. (Trimble missed a significant portion of that game due to a head injury.)
When this year’s Terps are clicking, they can seem unstoppable. Their 35-point shellacking of Ohio State was an example, as was their first half against top 30 UConn at MSG, when they took a 38–22 lead into halftime. If the Terrapins can get a better handle on the ball and clean up some of the scoring lulls they tend to fall into, they will be a favorite in March. They could be either way—they’re certainly not the only top team with flaws, and most of the other elements are there: Maryland shoots 49.7% as a team and its effective field goal percentage ranks No. 7. Its adjusted defensive efficiency ranks No. 11 and has it defenders in Layman and Sulaimon who are capable of limiting opposing stars (as Layman recently did to Iowa’s Jarrod Uthoff). The offense is led by one of the top point guards in the country in Trimble, but anyone in the starting lineup can break out on a given night. And, after all, this team is 20–3 and very much in the Big Ten title hunt.
Cutting down on turnovers is no guarantee of a win, but finding some consistency there could potentially be the difference between a deep NCAA tournament run and another early exit. For a school that hasn’t reached the Sweet 16 since 2003, that difference is everything.