Maryland guard Eric Hayes knows his coach’s preferred tactics. The Terrapins, as they have much of the past two decades, remain reliant on man-to-man defense.
So a zone approach isn’t common. That doesn’t mean it’s a complete shock when Gary Williams orders it at a crucial time - as was the case for stretches in Tuesday’s 80-68 defeat of Indiana.
“I really don’t expect him to do that a lot,” Hayes said. “He likes to play man-to-man, and that’s what he usually does. In situations like we had at Indiana where it was needed to win the game, he’s going to do whatever it takes to win the game.”
The zone might not be required - or even desired - when the Terps (5-2) face guard-heavy No. 3 Villanova (7-0) on Sunday night in the BB&T Classic at Verizon Center. But it certainly wouldn’t be as unusual a sight as it once was.
Williams played for Bud Millikan, a coaching disciple of Henry Iba - a man who showed disdain for zone defenses as a matter of principle. But Williams also worked for Tom Davis, the former Boston College, Stanford and Iowa coach who utilized zones throughout his career.
Nonetheless, much of Williams’ coaching reputation is based on applying stifling defensive pressure. So it was an intriguing twist when the Terps reached the NCAA tournament last year in large part because they utilized a zone at crucial moments in the second half of the season.
But that was with a smaller roster forced into a zone as a method of denying passes into the paint. Maryland’s roster is different, with freshmen James Padgett and Jordan Williams offering size the Terps couldn’t effectively deploy a season ago.
“Since I’ve been here, the zone won some games for us down the stretch when we needed some wins,” guard Sean Mosley said. “Coach is one of those types of guys who loves to go man-to-man for 40 minutes, but when guys get in foul trouble we have something else to fall back into.”
It’s all a matter of how it’s viewed as well. For particularly aggressive coaches - and players - abandoning a man defense can seem passive, not to mention the possibility that it leaves a team exposed to a streaky shooter.
But there are ways to adapt.
“When you play mostly man-to-man, that’s the one thing you have to make sure your players understand is that you’re not going soft because you’re going zone,” Gary Williams said. “This is just a way to play certain teams. You don’t see it all the time, but there’s times when it’s needed. And yourself as a coach, you have to be open to the fact that it might be the best way to play at a certain time.”
That was the case Tuesday, when the Hoosiers shredded Maryland’s press and managed to drive in for easy baskets on the way to a 28-21 lead late in the first half. Then came the defensive switch to the Terps’ “15” defense, which ultimately flummoxed Indiana much of the rest of the night.
The Hoosiers shot 7-for-26 from the outside - including 3-for-15 in the second half - as the Terps rallied to win by double digits.
“Any time you play, you try to take away some of the strengths of the other team,” Williams said. “I felt against Indiana a zone would help us take that away. So going into the game we had planned that. Since we played it against really good guards last year like Wake Forest and California, we were ready. It wasn’t an act of desperation when we did it. It was preconceived. It worked last year [and] worked this year.”
Regardless of Williams’ plotting, it appears the Terps will favor pragmatism in their defensive approach this season. And that means the defense that helped them survive a rebuilding Indiana team probably won’t be mothballed anytime soon.
“We have inside presence this year to clog up the middle and help us rebound, because it’s definitely going to be long shots because a lot of teams are going take a lot of 3s,” Mosley said. “I think with James and Jordan and Landon [Milbourne] and myself, we’re the type of guys to get rebounds down the stretch. I think the ‘15’ can definitely help us out and win some games for us.”