All season long, Maryland has been an offensive force.
But lately, the Terrapins have approached games less as a competition and more as a scoring showcase. Such was the case on Thursday against Michigan, with a win clinching at least a share of the Big Ten title.
The game plan from the Wolverines seemed to be to limit Maryland early and avoid a result similar to what Iowa suffered on Feb. 23, when Maryland scored 68 points by halftime and beat the Hawkeyes 111-93. So after Katie Benzan opened the scoring with a long three and Diamond Miller followed with a drive to the hoop, Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico quickly called timeout.
It didn’t help.
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Maryland put up 27 in the first quarter alone and swamped the Wolverines 88-63. Michigan is a likely top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament, so this wasn’t some easy exhibition. As Maryland coach Brenda Frese pointed out in an interview last week, the team’s relatively sparse nonconference slate, thanks to the times we are living in, means that it has compiled a greater share of its numbers than usual against foes in the Big Ten, a conference as strong as any in America.
This Maryland team could get lost among the many other great Frese-coached teams, but it shouldn’t — she says this is her best offensive team. As the Terps travel to the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis this week as the No. 1 seed after finishing the regular season with a Saturday win over Penn State, they are positioned as a legitimate national title contender, especially given recent developments that have lifted them even further.
But let’s start with the basics. Maryland is the most efficient offense, per 100 possessions, in the nation, at 121.8 points scored. That ranks this team fifth since HerHoopStats began tracking the stat in 2015-16, behind a trio of UConn teams and last season’s Sabrina Ionescu-led Oregon Ducks.
That’s a group of Final Four teams in the UConn three, including a title-winner in 2016, and in Oregon, a team that many believe would have won the 2020 national title. (Others believe South Carolina would have won, for the record; please don’t @ me.)
The Maryland attack is less of a star-based system than it is an ensemble piece, with its five starters — point guard Ashley Owusu, Benzan at shooting guard, and versatile wings Mimi Collins, Miller and Chloe Bibby — all averaging double figures in points per game.
Owusu’s work is where a lot of this begins, since the reasons for Maryland dominating are as much about pushing every possible metric up to max volume, and she runs the show. It is this offensive versatility that makes game-planning against the Terrapins so difficult, and Owusu — who averages 19 points per game and shoots 49.4 percent from the field, and whose assist percentage sits at a robust 31.1 percent — provides an engine for that attack.
Her backcourt mate Benzan, a grad transfer who started her career at Harvard, is the nation’s leading 3-point shooter,1 at an absurd 52.3 percent. But everyone in the Maryland rotation can shoot from deep — as a team, Maryland is shooting 41.9 percent from beyond the arc, the second-best mark in the country.
That makes the space an opposing defense has to cover virtually endless, and it opens both passing and driving lanes for everyone. For the 6-foot-3 sophomore Miller, whose skills and boundless athleticism make her a potential future WNBA lottery pick, along with the 6-foot-3 Tennessee transfer Collins, the space this creates to finish at the rim is an obvious consequence. But even someone like the 6-foot-1 Bibby, who was more of a strictly catch-and-shoot option at Mississippi State before transferring to College Park last summer, has tripled her free throw attempts per game, finishing at the rim more regularly as well.
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“She spreads out our offense,” Frese said of Bibby. “But you can see that [versatility] in the forward position as well.”
Bibby is among the nation’s best free throw shooters at 88.5 percent. But she trails her own teammate, Benzan, who hits 93.1 percent of hers, and as a team, Maryland’s 79.2 percent is fifth in the country.
Add to this their 52 percent rate from two, and this is an entire roster that’s within striking distance of putting up a 50-40-80 season as a collective. Even the shots they miss they typically grab for another try — Maryland’s offensive rebound rate of 41.4 percent is seventh in the country.
But the glory of Frese’s system in 2021 is that she’s maximizing the value of that shooting in other areas as well.
Frese has enjoyed deep rosters of shooters before — her 2015-16 team, for instance, had similar percentages from all three levels. But future Connecticut Sun center Brionna Jones did most of her damage around the rim, and that Terrapins team got only 23.6 percent of its points from threes, even with future WNBA guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough hitting a Benzan-like 54.5 percent of her deep balls.
This Maryland team, playing a true 5-out, gets 28.9 percent of its points from three, which would rank in the top half of the league among WNBA squads.
So they can score at the rim, the midrange or the three. They’ll convert if you foul them. Fine, can you do better by speeding them up or slowing them down? Nope again.
Maryland does like to play fast, with a pace of 75.1 possessions per 40 minutes, 29th in the country. But the Terps score at an elite level whether in the half-court or in transition, ranking, per Synergy Sports, in the top 10 in the country in points per possession in both cases — third in half-court offensive efficiency, fifth in transition.
And even that’s more dangerous than it sounds. While their ranking is higher relative to other half-court teams, virtually all teams score more easily in transition, and Maryland is no exception — 1.138 points per transition possession this year, compared to 0.972 points per half-court possession. Worse still for opponents, Maryland spends 26.9 percent of its time on offense in transition, eighth in the country, and the most of any team in the top 50 in transition efficiency.
In summary: They can kill you slow or fast, can do it more easily fast, and they play fast more often than any elite transition team in the country.
It helps that each of their top six minute-getters, the five double-figure scorers and human distillation of Jersey toughness Faith Masonius, are all north of a 1.5 steal percentage.
That skill was on display Thursday against Michigan, when Maryland forced 21 turnovers, including nine steals, and tallied 29 points off of those turnovers. And they do not make many mistakes — the 11 turnovers they committed are about par for the course: They sport a 13.8 turnover percentage that ranks ninth and a 1.58 assist-to-turnover rate that’s second nationwide.
Frese credited the “waves we were able to send” as allowing Maryland’s energy to remain high, and acknowledged that she can be more aggressive in calling for full-court pressure defense because of it.
All of which further reinforces the importance of Angel Reese, the nation’s second-highest ranked recruit of 2020, according to ESPN, and someone who started and immediately dominated in her first few games, before a foot injury cost her much of the season. Now, in an absurd luxury, she’s a bench player as she works her way back, though she’s showing precious little rust in that role. The 6-foot-3 forward jumps out of the gym, finishes at the rim and gives Maryland yet another impossible matchup problem for opponents.
“We have so many weapons on this court that on this team, it’s just — who do you try to take away?” Frese said. “So it’s just given us another level.”
That level does not appear to have any weaknesses at all on offense. It’s an awfully enviable place to be as the calendar reads March.