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Terps solid on defense despite lack of turnovers

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Mark Turgeon hadn't slept much in the two nights since his Maryland basketball team outlasted George Mason in the BB&T Classic, a game featuring more than a few turnover issues. 

The Terrapins have struggled handling the ball, a problem Turgeon believes is eminently fixable. Yet what might be more fascinating is the absence of forced turnovers.

It's not new, and might not matter much, either.

The Terrapins (6-1) have just 9.7 takeaways per game a little less than a quarter of the way into the regular season, last in the ACC. Their 10.9 forced turnovers a night in Turgeon's debut last season also placed them at the bottom of the conference. And in Turgeon's last year at Texas A&M, the Aggies ranked ninth in the Big 12 with 13.4 takeaways a game.

"We're still accomplishing what we want by wearing them down and making them run through the whole shot clock and just being more aggressive on them," forward Charles Mitchell said. "That's our main focus."

Indeed, there is little to quibble about with Maryland's overall defense entering Wednesday's date with Maryland-Eastern Shore (0-7) at Comcast Center. Opponents are shooting a meager 36.4 percent, tied for 22nd nationally. And while a raw rebounding total doesn't reveal everything, the Terps entered Tuesday tied with Iowa State for the most boards per game with 46.9.

But as Maryland begins an eight-game homestand — the first six of which close out nonconference play — it is an obvious time for tinkering and improvement. The schedule is light on games with final exams and a holiday break, and Turgeon plans for the Terps to work on themselves as December unfolds.

At the defensive end, it could mean becoming somewhat more disruptive. Turgeon said his team's pass deflections are up from a year ago, but Maryland has only 30 steals through seven games.

With lanky wing options such as Nick Faust and Dez Wells and feisty reserve guard Seth Allen, the steals and forced turnovers are lower than anticipated but not a cause for major alarm.

"The first stat I look at is field goal percentage," Turgeon said. "That's really what's important to me. Next would be rebounding. Then — which hasn't been a lot of fun to look at — assist/turnover and field goal percentage offense. We just try to put in a game plan every game. Whether it's about getting steals or getting stops, it's probably more about getting stops and having good position to rebound."

Turgeon's philosophy is based more on getting to shooters, containing drivers and sound post defense. The presence of center Alex Len substantially helps the final goal, and the early effect is opponents are settling for outside shots more frequently as a result of the 7-foot-1 barrier protecting the rim.

While a surplus of steals wasn't necessary in recent weeks, they would still be welcome as Maryland ventures deeper into the season.

"I'm more than sure it will come on the defensive side of the ball," Wells said. "It's just getting used to each other playing on the court. As we play more and more, by January and February I feel like we'll probably be a six or a seven [out of 10] as far as defense."

Wells isn't the only person in the program offering caution about the Terps' progress. Maryland is off to its best start since winning its first eight games in 2006-07, but Turgeon sees the need for significant improvement in the upcoming weeks.

"I think everybody's got the cart way before the horse with our team," Turgeon said. "I don't think we're a very good team yet. Everybody's talking about how good we are. We haven't really done anything yet, to be quite honest with you. We're getting better and we're defending and rebounding pretty well, but we have a long ways to go if we're going to compete in the ACC. It's a big month for us."

Notes: Wednesday game starts at 7 p.m., an hour before Maryland's typical midweek tip time in recent years. The Terps are 15-0 all-time against UMES, with their most recent meeting coming in 2004. The Terps' average victory margin in the series is 38.6 points.

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