COLLEGE PARK -- Maryland has arguably the most talented starting five in the country, but for much of the season it has been difficult to make all of that talent fit together perfectly for one reason or another.
But as the calendar flips to March, we may have now seen an adjustment from head coach Mark Turgeon that could spur the Terrapins and help their hopes of making a deep run in the NCAA tournament -- playing small ball.
We have seen the look from the Terrapins at different points in the season, but not usually for extended minutes because of concerns about minute allotments following a preseason injury to guard Dion Wiley and the subsequent strain it put on backcourt depth.
It wasn't even the lineup Maryland started out with on Thursday in a blowout win over Illinois, but Turgeon’s decision to move senior Jake Layman to the power forward spot in the basis for the adjustment.
When playing small forward, which is likely his position at the next level, Layman is rarely a mismatch. The wing position is full of athletes, so the senior simply matches up. One for one. But when shifted to power forward he gives up very little in terms of height, but few defenders can stick with him athletically.
He was forced to play the position last season because of an injury to Evan Smotrycz. The result? He battled with Robert Carter, Jr. every day on the block in practice, with the Georgia Tech transfer not yet eligible to play in games. That helped him to develop an array of post skills, many of which are accentuated by his athletic advantage playing at the four.
“They always have [playing small] in their package,” Illinois coach John Groce said on Thursday. “Last year, obviously, we played them at home and won the game and they played Layman a lot at the four last year.
“It’s been a little bit different with that here of late or this year where they’ve played two traditional bigs a lot more and sprinkled him in there. It stretches the floor a little bit more when they have four guards in there. … Certainly it gives them a different look, there’s no question about that.”
Carter has stretch four potential at the next level and has shown the ability to knock down shots from the outside, but he can sometimes be streaky. Having Layman at that position gives Maryland a true stretch, plus shifts Carter to the center position where the threat of hitting at his rate -- 33 percent -- can change the offense.
Add to that mix Jared Nickens, who might officially be out of his midseason slump after going 4-of-7 from three against Illinois, and guard Jaylen Brantley and Maryland now has the depth to play small.
At this point in the season, there should be less of a concern about minutes distribution anyway as chips get pushed into the middle of the table in the single-elimination Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.
“We’re going to play both. We’re going to go big. We’re going to go small,” Turgeon said. “But we’ll do whatever’s going to help us and we can spread the floor a little bit more as we do it.”
That spreading the floor changes the entire offensive dynamic for Maryland.
Guard Melo Trimble, who appears to have all but fully turned the corner with 18 points on 7-of-14 shooting against Illinois, has so much more room to operate.
When he drives into the lane with a truly spread floor, the defense is forced to choose between letting the foul-drawing Trimble go at a defender one-on-one or help off a shooter -- and Maryland is confident any of the other four players can knock down a jumper.
They can put Layman in the post and play four-around-one. They can put Carter or Diamond Stone down there and do the same. They could play five out and really change things.
That’s before mentioning the full-court pressure defense that the smaller lineup allows for.
There are warranted questions about how Maryland has played of late. Blowing out a less-talented Illinois team shouldn’t be reason to forget everything that came before Thursday night. But, as was mentioned, this is arguably the nation’s most talented starting five -- with far more on-paper NBA-level talent than contenders like North Carolina and Kansas.
With those pieces to play with, sometimes it can be all about an adjustment.
“It’s that time of year where guys just got to do it,” Turgeon said. “Melo and Sheed [Sulaimon] and Jake got tired when we were playing the big lineup, so now we’ve had time to rest. We’ll see.”