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UConn vs Maryland: A Game of Mismatches

UConn has an advantage on the boards, but Maryland’s roster presents matchup issues for UConn. Which team will exploit these mismatches best?

How to Watch

Time: 7:10 PM ET

TV: CBS

Streaming: March Madness Live

Location: Mackey Arena

Records: UConn 15-7 (11-6, Big East) | Maryland 16-13 (9-11, Big Ten)

KenPom Rankings: UConn – 16 | Maryland – 31

Line: UConn -3

Total: 130


The 7-seed UConn Huskies make their return to March Madness and take on the 10-seed Maryland Terrapins. A lot of people on the twitterverse seem to be looking past Maryland and ahead to the potential round of 32 game against Alabama. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves; Maryland is a tough out. No team can be overlooked in March Madness; and of all people, UConn fans should know that best based on their history in March.

Normally I like to keep my previews short, one to two paragraphs per team max. But I’m going to take a really deep dive into this game preview, since it’s an unfamiliar non-conference opponent that I am highly familiar with. Maryland has one of the more unique rosters that UConn will have faced this year. It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but this game reminds me too much of the loss to St. John’s. Anyone remember what happened that game and how UConn lost? Read on to see what I mean.

I’ll discuss how and why Maryland can cause problems for UConn and vice versa. I have watched at least half of Maryland’s games this season, so I feel oddly over prepared to write about this, and that’s probably reflected in the length of the preview. Don’t worry though, I am making the preview so that you can skip more than half of it and still get the same idea. I’ll explain a bit more below. For now, if you want to know way too much about Maryland and this game, I suggest you keep reading so you can tell me how wrong I am on twitter.

Preview Breakdown By Sections

  • Maryland Overview
  • Individual Matchups (this is a section you can skip)
  • The Other Guys (this is a section you can skip)
  • Quick Recap (this summarizes the sections you just skipped)
  • Keys to the game
  • Final Thoughts

Maryland Overview

Maryland was predicted to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten in pretty much every preseason poll. Understandable when they lost Anthony Cowan to graduation and Jalen Smith to the NBA. They had a final-four caliber team last year, but Covid had other plans. So how did Maryland end up finishing 8th (out of 14) in the loaded Big Ten? They’re a tough matchup for almost any team, creating mismatch issues at almost every position, that’s how.

Let’s first familiarize ourselves with Maryland and take a cursory glance at their roster so you can see what I mean. I’m only including players that averaged meaningful minutes down the stretch. Players are listed by average minutes per game in descending order. In other words, Jarius Hamilton and Galin Smith come off the bench.

Maryland Roster

Player Name (Year) Position (Height) Key Stats Other Notes
Player Name (Year) Position (Height) Key Stats Other Notes
Eric Ayala (JR) Guard (6’5”) 14.9 PPG, 4.2 RPG 83.1 FT%, All-Big Ten honorable mention
Aaron Wiggins (JR) Guard (6’6”) 14.0 PPG, 5.0 RPG All-Big Ten honorable mention
Darrly Morsell (SR) Guard (6’5”) 9.0 PPG, 4.0 RPG Big Ten DPOY, Big Ten All Defensive Team, All-Big Ten honorable mention
Hakim Hart (SO) Guard (6’6”) 7.1 PPG, 3.6 RPG
Donta Scott (SO) Forward (6’7”) 10.9 PPG, 6.1 RPG 43.3 3P%
Jairus Hamilton (JR) Forward (6’8”) 6.8 PPG, 2.4 RPG 43.9 3P%
Galin Smith (SR) Forward (6’9”) 3.8 PPG, 2.4 RPG

Anything stand out?

Right off the bat, you might notice that Maryland doesn’t play a true center. They have one on the roster, but Maryland only plays 7 players, and they are all essentially guard/forward hybrids that vary on the guard-forward spectrum. Similar to UConn, Maryland can struggle with prolonged offensive droughts, but they can also score in bunches. Maryland has been able to win tough games in the Big Ten (the best league in the country, despite whatever Big East [Coast] Bias you may have) because they are a matchup nightmare for most teams due to their position-less style of play.

I’m going to break things down comparing to UConn’s typical starting five to Maryland’s typical starting five, while making some general assumptions about who will guard who. Exploiting mismatches is always part of the game, but particularly so for this matchup. This game will be an epic chess match between Danny Hurley and Mark Turgeon. Let’s get into it.

*THIS IS WHERE YOU CAN SKIP AHEAD TO “QUICK RECAP”*

Individual Matchups

RJ Cole vs Eric Ayala

This will be a matchup of size vs speed. RJ Cole has the speed advantage. Eric Ayala has the size advantage.

RJ Cole (12.3 PPG, 4.4 APG) has been a warrior all season and has been playing his best basketball of late. However, Cole is 6’1” and Ayala is 6’5”. So, the question for UConn is who does RJ Cole guard on defense? Cole is a tenacious defender, but there’s only so much you can do against a bigger player. Eric Ayala handles the point-guard duties for Maryland, but he’s also their leading scorer (14.9 PPG). Ayala is a skilled scorer at all three levels, and he makes smart decisions with the ball, limiting turnovers. He always seems to get a bucket when Maryland needs it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Maryland have him backdown Cole in the post. If no help comes, Ayala should be able to take Cole. If help does come, Ayala is a good passer and will look to find the open man.

Obviously, the reverse holds true for Maryland. RJ Cole is quick and crafty as a point guard. He can score with relative ease, especially since Bouknight has returned. It seems unlikely that a much bigger guard would be able to keep up with him, but Ayala can certainly make life difficult for Cole with his size. Getting his shot off over someone of Ayala’s size may prove difficult, but I’m not betting against RJ Cole.

James Bouknight vs Darryl Morsell

This is probably the most exciting individual matchup of the game if you love great offense vs great defense. James Bouknight is a projected NBA lottery pick and finished the season averaging 19 PPG. Darryl Morsell is the Big Ten defensive play of the year, a league with plenty of great defenders to choose from. That should tell you something about Morsell; he is the best defender in the best league.

Bouknight (and really all of UConn) is coming off a poor showing (at least by his standards) in the Big East Tournament semi-finals loss to Creighton. He seems motivated as ever to cement his place among the UConn greats known for their post season performances. This is why he came to UConn.

Bouknight will be going up against probably the best defender he has ever played, but it’s hard to see Bouknight having poor outings in back-to-back games. Morsell expels most of his energy on the defensive end fighting through screens and making the offensive players life miserable. Hurley will have to plan for this and run some sets early to get Bouknight going. He will have to be mentally tough for 40 minutes against Morsell, but the Creighton game should serve as all the motivation Bouknight needs to welcome UConn back to the NCAA tournament.

Tyrese Martin vs Aaron Wiggins

This is essentially the reverse of the matchup above. Tyrese Martin (10.7 PPG, 7.3 RPG) is UConn’s best perimeter defender. He will likely be tasked with covering Aaron Wiggins, an uber athletic guard/forward. Once Wiggins gets going, he is tough to stop, so you have to keep him from getting started. How can Martin do this? Wiggins can sometimes settle for long, contested jump shots especially when the opponent has the lead. If Martin and the front court can frustrate Wiggins when he drives (looking at Whaley for weakside blocks), this will be a key factor to limiting his impact on the game.

Isaiah Whaley vs Hakim Hart

If you aren’t intrigued yet, this is where things get really interesting, the front court or lack thereof for Maryland. If we are going to assume that Hurley and Turgeon use their typical starting lineups, you have Hakim Hart (a guard) vs Isaiah Whaley (a forward) and Donta Scott (a forward that plays like a guard) vs Adama Sanogo (a true center). For simplicity, I’m going to assume the coaches don’t start their chess match by switching up their starting lineups, but it is possibly Whaley may matchup with someone else. For now I’m going to treat it as if these will be the matchups, but this is where things really stand out.

Hakim Hart has been a solid contributor to this Maryland team in his sophomore season. He takes care of the ball and picks his spots, in other words, he knows his role. Whaley (8.1 PPG, 6.1 RPG) will have his work cut out for him defensively, but I’ll never doubt The Wrench on defense. Afterall, he did win co-defensive player of the year in the Big East and currently ranks 12th in the nation in blocks per game (2.64). Whaley might be able to help off Hart a bit to minimize the impact of other mismatches.

What about on offense? Whaley isn’t typically a focal point of the offense. He gets his points at opportune times such as put backs or when a defender doesn’t respect his jump shot, but Hurley isn’t running many set plays for Whaley. However, Hakim Hart does not have the size or strength as a sophomore to slow Whaley down in the post. Even if the team doesn’t work the ball into Whaley, his size advantage should create plenty of opportunities for Whaley to feast the offensive glass. Hart is a decent defender, and doesn’t commit many fouls, but I would look for Whaley to have a big game if he is indeed matched up with Hart.

I will say, it is possible and maybe more likely, that Aaron Wiggins will cover Whaley on the defensive end for Maryland. But either way, either Whaley or Tyrese Martin is going to have a big advantage over their defender and will need to be aggressive.

Adama Sanogo vs Donta Scott

As if all the other matchups haven’t created enough problems for both teams to think about, this might be the worst matchup of all. Adama Sanogo (7.5 PPG, 4.8 RPG) is more of a true center whereas Donta Scott is probably better described as a 6’7” bulky guard that happens to be listed as a forward simply because of his size. Sanogo will have to be careful to stay out of foul trouble. Scott has decent handles and great mobility. He plays all over the court and Sanogo is not a perimeter defender. Donta Scott can score, so you can’t sag off and leave him open from three. He is comfortable in the post or beyond the three-point line, shooting an impressive 43% from deep. He will have a field day on offense if he is going one on one with a true center. That is probably how he shot 43% from three in the Big Ten.

So, how does UConn handle this? Does Hurley stay big and feed Sanogo inside on every possession, forcing Maryland to double team, and let Sanogo do the best he can on the defensive end? Scott won’t be able to effectively slow Sanogo down inside by himself. Can Sanogo get Scott in foul trouble early on?

Sanogo has gotten better and more aggressive on offense with each game, but does anyone remember the St. John’s game? UConn was, of course, without Bouknight, but still. UConn opened a comfortable lead early, but then Mike Anderson changed the game plan because St John’s couldn’t stop Sanogo inside. A veteran coaching move. Anderson went small (even smaller than usual for St. John’s) and forced Hurley’s hand. Hurley responded by taking out Sanogo, who finished with 12 points in only 17 minutes. After the game, Hurley said it was hard to put Sanogo out there because there was no one for him to guard. This will be the case against Maryland the entire game, by default, due to their roster.

The Other Guys

A major strength for UConn is their bench play, although Hurley has cut down on his rotation lately. Andre Jackson, Tyler Polley, and Jalen Gaffney (and Josh Carlton in spurts) have been seeing the most minutes off the bench lately. Polley provides instant offense and Gaffney has shown flashes of his athleticism and all-around game as his confidence continues to grow.

Since Maryland only subs in two players, I won’t really focus on them other than to say that Hurley should have Sanogo in the game any time that Galin Smith enters. Smith comes in to provide size and rest for Donta Scott primarily. He plays his role well, but there is little chance for him against Sanogo on either side of the court. Smith plays about 15 minutes a game and the ball should be in Sanogo’s hands as much as possible during that time.

Quick Recap (this summarizes the sections you just skipped)

  • RJ Cole will be going up against a much bigger player from Maryland. Maryland’s smallest player on the floor at any given time is a 6’5’ guard.
  • James Bouknight will be matching up against Darryl Morsell, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Will Bouknight and Cole be able to carry the offensive load still?
  • Tyrese Martin will likely be tasked with guarding Aaron Wiggins, a dynamic and athletic scorer.
  • Maryland doesn’t really have a typical frontcourt. Will Hurley use this to his advantage and learn from what Mike Anderson and St. John’s did in their comeback win?
  • Whaley and Sanogo will be guarding smaller, faster players. But Maryland also doesn’t have an answer defensively for the UConn frontcourt.
  • Sanogo should always be in against Maryland’s backup center, Galin Smith.
  • Lastly, foul trouble will be important. Maryland only plays 7 players.

Keys to the game: Offensive Rebounding and Second Chance Points

Rebounding always matters, of course, but it is particularly important for UConn and this matchup. Maryland isn’t a bad rebounding team on the defensive end, but Maryland is one of the worst teams in the country when it comes to getting offensive rebounds, 327th in the country to be exact. Meanwhile, UConn is one of the most dominant offensive rebounding teams in the country, 6th per KenPom. The Huskies pull down an incredible 36.8% of their missed shots. This is where the biggest advantage lies, offensive rebounds and second chance points for UConn. Despite pulling down offensive rebounds, UConn sometimes struggle to finish near the rim and capitalize on their second chance opportunities. The margin of error becomes slimmer in March Madness. Crash the boards and take advantage.

Just how much does rebounding matter to UConn’s success? UConn is 13-1 this season in games where they win the rebounding battle, and just 2-6 in games they tie or lose on the boards. The two wins were over DePaul and Marquette, while three of the six losses came during Bouknight’s absence, so take that for what it’s worth. Either way, win the rebounding battle just to be safe.

Final Thoughts

It will be interesting to see how Hurley uses his prior experience against St. John’s for this game. One very remote possibility is mixing in some zone (though I doubt it). I suppose Mark Turgeon could do the same to UConn.

I know Hurley loves his man-to-man defense and rightfully so, but if you want to protect Sanogo from foul trouble and take advantage of his size on offense, a zone defense could work. This would also help negate the many other mismatches I’ve covered. Of course, playing zone also gives Maryland more chances for offensive rebounds. In a zone, it is much easier for the offensive team to crash the glass (just ask Syracuse – they rank 339th in defensive rebounding percentage). St. John’s matched UConn on the boards with 24 a piece in their comeback win while playing small ball, in no small part because of Sanogo’s absence. When UConn wins the rebounding battle, they are tough to beat. As I’ve been saying, this game will be about who exploits mismatches better. The most glaring mismatch in terms of the teams as a whole is on the offensive glass.

I’ll wrap things up here, but suffice to say, it’s great to be back and playing meaningful games in March. This should be a great back and forth game where the winner will most likely run into Nate Oats and Alabama. Neither team can get caught looking ahead though. In March, it’s win or go home. One game at a time. I think this matchup will be a good measuring stick for how both the UConn coaching staff and the team have progressed throughout the season. In their recent loss to Creighton, the moment may have been a little too big for UConn, a team with no post season experience. It also didn’t help that Bouknight was probably not at one hundred percent. Either way, Creighton’s experience won out and experience tends to win in March. Will that one game serve as enough valuable experience for the team to make a patented UConn run in March? Isaiah Whaley seems to think so and you know I never doubt The Wrench.