Maryland men’s basketball wilted against Clemson’s physicality

Maryland men's basketball coach Mark Turgeon during Maryland's 90-57 win over Saint Peter's at Xfinity Center on Dec. 4, 2020. (Joe Ryan/The Diamondback)

Throughout its first four games, Maryland men’s basketball was the aggressor. Guards Eric Ayala, Darryl Morsell and Donta Scott drove to the rim with reckless abandon, outmuscling their undersized opposition in the process. On the block, Galin Smith and Jairus Hamilton showed off their considerable strength and battled with post players.

But in the Terps’ first true test of the season, a road matchup with Clemson, that physicality faded. The shots at the rim that came so easily in College Park were stifled. The defensive presence that platformed Maryland’s early-season success waned. And the result was all the more predictable: a 16-point loss to the Tigers.

“To be honest, they was tougher than us tonight,” Morsell said. “Mentally and physically.”

[Maryland men’s basketball can’t keep pace with Clemson in 67-51 loss]

Much of Clemson’s toughness revolved around forward Aamir Simms. The All-ACC third teamer was central for the Tigers, proving too quick and strong for coach Mark Turgeon’s bigs.

Simms banked a jumper to start, shrugging his shoulders as he trotted back down the floor. It wasn’t the prettiest start to a game, but it was all he needed to get going.

A few minutes later, Simms was at it again, showing off his range with a three pointer off the catch and shoot. The senior had established himself as an outside force. Maryland, already withering under pressure from Clemson’s standout defense, looked weary.

“First road game, a lot of things. We were just out of sync,” Turgeon said. “I think Clemson had a lot to do with it.”

Simms took advantage of that lack of synchronization, putting the ball on the floor and barrelling through a late Hamilton charge attempt to put the Tigers up 14. They were filled with confidence and life; Simms wagged his fingers back and forth, and he rested on the floor following his and-one, sporting a wide grin that encapsulated the energy and excitement bursting from Clemson’s squad.

On the other side of the court, Maryland’s lack of aggression compounded as shot after shot clanked off the rim. Scott and Hamilton, two players lauded for their physical prowess, were held largely in check, combining for a paltry five points on 2-of-5 shooting.

Meanwhile, the guards struggled to come to grips with the Tigers’ intensity. Ayala and Morsell had sparkled in the Terps’ early games, using their ability to penetrate to open up time and space on the perimeter — for themselves and others.

[Bereft of a star, Maryland men’s basketball is relying on its depth]

But the well dried up Wednesday night as Clemson’s guards pestered and bullied the guard duo. Ayala and Morsell were held to just four points between them in the first half, a far cry from the 24.5 they combined to contribute to Turgeon’s side in the opening four games of the season.

“They did a good job of denying us and getting us out of rhythm in our offense,” Ayala said. “I think we was scattered.”

Maryland’s bigs experienced similar struggles. With the guards stifled, Hamilton and Smith were in for a busy night. But Simms and John Newman III made their presence felt on both ends, capitalizing on a defense offering little resistance to their size and muscle. They locked down the block, collecting seven and three rebounds, respectively. Meanwhile, the Hamilton-Smith tandem notched just three boards between them.

Although the second half proved slightly more competitive, the Terps still were outclassed and, more pointedly, outmuscled. Maryland made a slight rally, cutting the lead to 12.

But it always seemed like the Tigers’ size and strength would win out, a scoring spark away from putting the game out of reach. Simms’ putback with just under eight minutes left was the kindling. With no one to oppose his paint presence, he snatched the ball out of the air before making an uncontested layup and pushing Clemson’s lead to 14. It would never get any closer.

The Tigers’ physicality gave Turgeon’s squad a taste of what’s to come during conference play. Although the Terps impressed in their opening four fixtures, league play is typically defined by its toughness, its hard-nosed nature. With its first conference test against Rutgers just days away, Maryland is hoping to rediscover its robustness on both ends.

There aren’t many other options — especially not in the uber-physical Big Ten.

“What else can we really do?” Morsell said.

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