As soon as Michigan came down with the rebound four minutes into Saturday’s game against Maryland men’s basketball, guard Charles Matthews took off up the court. Terps guard Eric Ayala reacted a step late, never catching the Wolverine as he received a feed and finished with a flush.
A minute later, Ayala and guard Darryl Morsell were the first two Terps back on defense after a missed shot. They turned and waited at the three-point line, and guard Anthony Cowan — trailing Matthews by a few feet — pointed to Morsell to cover the lane. Morsell, in turn, pointed to Matthews as he streaked past him, unabated.
Matthews caught an uncontested lob, laying the ball in and forcing coach Mark Turgeon to call a timeout less than a minute after the media stoppage.
Maryland’s lackluster fast-break defense allowed Michigan, a team KenPom ranks No. 307 in tempo, to run the floor with regularity in Saturday’s 65-52 loss. When the No. 24 Terps visit No. 21 Iowa — the Big Ten’s second-fastest offense — they won’t be able to afford such a lackadaisical approach to transition defense.
“It’s just effort,” Turgeon said. “The guys watch the same film I watch, and you guys had to watch it live. They just ran right past us.”
When Maryland organizes itself in a half-court set, it can be hard to break down — “I’d put ours up against anybody’s in the league, and maybe even in the country,” Turgeon said.
The Terps have held opponents to the second-lowest shooting percentage in the conference at .396. Maryland has the fifth-best scoring defense in the Big Ten at 64.6 points per game.
And the unit delivered a stout second-half effort against then-No. 12 Purdue on Tuesday. With Morsell locking down guard Carsen Edwards, the Terps held the Boilermakers to 18 points in the final 20 minutes, turning an eight-point halftime deficit into a 14-point win.
But Maryland’s Achilles’ heel has been clear, and the Wolverines were just the latest team to exploit it. Then-No. 6 Michigan State ran away with 29 fast-break points Jan. 21, and Illinois scored 27 fast-break points — facilitated by 21 Terps turnovers — in an upset win at Madison Square Garden five days later.
Michigan, meanwhile, scored 14 fast-break points Saturday, with most coming during the Wolverines’ dominant opening minutes.
“I told the guys, ‘Hey, they watched film and they’re talking about how bad we are in transition, and they’re going to run,’” Turgeon said. “Now, Iowa runs anyway. So Iowa’s going to test us there.”
The Hawkeyes lead the conference in scoring, with forward Tyler Cook offering a formidable foe for forward Bruno Fernando, and three guards who shoot 40 percent or better from three-point range.
Iowa posted 13 fast-break points in its Feb. 1 upset over the Wolverines and put up 19 in a tight win over Northwestern on Feb. 10. Preventing the Hawkeyes from getting quick buckets was a focus of Monday’s practice.
“Just sprinting back on defense every time, making sure we’ve got three guys down there and two guys rebounding,” Fernando said. “That’s been the thing we keep making mistakes on.”
That letdown was most apparent on Matthews’ lay-in at the 14:40 mark of Saturday’s opening period. Ayala and Morsell made it back on defense, but Ayala, who was the ball-side defender, didn’t pressure forward Ignas Brazdeikis as he crossed half-court.
And Morsell, instead of guarding the lane to prevent an easy bucket, remained at the three-point line with Ayala and left ample space for the pass in-behind.
“I kind of noticed in our last game, you know, Matthews kind of getting out,” Ayala said. “You could tell their emphasis was to push us on the break.”
After losing to Illinois, Maryland won three of its next four games, seeming to limit — or at least overcome — its transition difficulties.
But it returned during an apathetic first half in Ann Arbor, and could prove to be a key factor in Tuesday’s outcome against another ranked road opponent.
“We had it corrected for a few games, and then we just decided not to run back on Saturday,” Turgeon said. “The guys gotta want it a little bit more in transition defense.”