For the third straight year, the Michigan men’s basketball team is off to a 7-0 start. Now, the only unbeaten team in the Big Ten attempts to keep that status into the new year, but will have to survive their toughest test in order to do so.
The Wolverines head to College Park to take on Maryland on New Year’s Eve. While the Terrapins are in somewhat of a transition phase after the graduation of Anthony Cowan and the early departure of Jalen Smith, they’re ranked 37th in KenPom — the highest of any Michigan opponent so far — and are coming off an upset win over No. 6 Wisconsin earlier this week.
KenPom rates this one as a toss-up, essentially, with the Wolverines favored by one point on the road. While Michigan is the more talented team, Maryland appears to be playing with an identity and could potentially exploit the Wolverines in some areas. Before the Terrapins’ win over the Badgers, their five wins all came against teams ranked below No. 118 in KenPom, so they’ll be eager to prove Monday wasn’t a fluke.
After the departures of two high-use stars in Cowan and Smith, Maryland’s offense has featured more balance this season. The Terps’ top nine players all have usage rates between 17 and 23 percent, and six players average at least eight points per game. Maryland has five players with an offensive rating above 110, fueling the nation’s 11th-most efficient group on that end.
Leading the way on both ends of the court have been a handful of former role players elevated to centerpieces. Eric Ayala, a 6-foot-5 junior, leads the team in scoring, averaging 14.7 points per game on just nine shot attempts. Much of Ayala’s efficiency has come from the line — he’s eight in the Big Ten in free-throw rate — but his outside shooting has slumped the last two seasons: after hitting 40.6 percent from deep as a freshman, he’s shot just 32 percent in his two seasons since.
Much like Ayala, Aaron Wiggins is a skilled wing whose shooting has tapered off the last two years: from 41.3 to 31.7 last year, and just 25.7 through this season’s first nine games. The 6-foot-6 junior still averages 11.0 points and 5.0 rebounds per game and can create his own shots, but he’s been inconsistent at hitting them.
A four-year starter at guard, Darryl Morsell has long been one of the stoutest defenders in the Big Ten. The 6-foot-5 Morsell doesn’t play like a guard on the offensive end: he’s hit just 27 percent of his threes over his Maryland career. However, he plays with a toughness to him, as evidenced by his five rebounds per game, and has added a bit of a playmaking role this year, too, with 2.9 assists per game.
The real surprise for this team has been Donta Scott, a 6-foot-7, 230-pound sophomore who has become the Terps’ second-leading scorer and leading rebounder (12.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg). Scott will play down low, sometimes even as a small-ball center, and has been lights-out shooting the ball (75.9 true shooting percentage, 51.9 3-point percentage). Undersized but versatile, Scott can be dangerous with the right matchup.
Joining Ayala, Wiggins, Morsell and Scott in the starting five for the Wisconsin game was Galin Smith, a 6-foot-9, 240-pound grad transfer big man from Alabama. Smith averages 5.2 points on limited usage (3.6 shots per game), but plays just 15 minutes on average and is a mediocre rebounder (just 2.7 per game).
Off the bench, Maryland’s main threats have been Hakim Hart and Jarius Hamilton. Hart is a 6-foot-6 sophomore averaging 9.2 points on 37.9 percent 3-point shooting. Hamilton is a 6-foot-8, 235-pound junior transfer from Boston College who can really stretch the floor (8.1 ppg, 41.9 3-point percentage). Both Hart and Hamilton generally play starter-level minutes.
Aquan Smart, Chol Marial and Reese Mona will rotate in as well, though neither have been the most efficient or highly-used reserves. Smart, a 6-foot-3 freshman, is more of a point guard than anyone else the Terps have, but is shooting just 29 percent from the floor. Marial is a 7-foot-2 sophomore big man who plays like one. He’s blocked nine shots in 79 minutes, but has an offensive rating of just 81.5. The 6-foot-2 Mona is a former walk-on who has played just 44 minutes and taken all of three shots.
Maryland is an interesting team to figure out. The Terrapins don’t really have a true point guard, but start five players who are 6-foot-5 or above and have three players average at least 2.7 assists per contest (Ayala, Wiggins and Morsell). None of their starters are taller than 6-foot-9, but their KenPom profile reads like that of a much bigger team. They have one of the country’s most efficient offenses behind a strong shooting performance from inside the arc especially (56.6 percent) and play at a crawl (310th in tempo).
Maryland is also allowing teams to shoot 36 percent from 3-point range, which ranks 256th in the country, and it will surrender threes regularly: 41 percent of shots the Terps allow come from behind the arc. Franz Wagner shot just 2-of-7 from deep against Nebraska, but his 20 points hint that he might be close to waking up in all facets, while the Wolverines still have Isaiah Livers (42.1 percent from deep) and Chaundee Brown (43.3) on the outside.
The Terrapins could spring an upset behind a strong shooting performance from one or both of Ayala and Wiggins, as well as the smaller Scott and Hamilton spacing the floor and taking 7-foot-1 Hunter Dickinson out of the game. Of course, the opposite could come to fruition as well, if Dickinson has his way with big men five inches shorter than him.
Michigan is used to playing with a size advantage, especially against the MAC and Horizon opponents it faced in non-conference play. None of those teams, though, had skill and balance like Maryland which could enable them to flip Michigan’s size into a weakness.
Thursday night’s outcome figures to hinge heavily on the Wolverines’ freshman center: if he stays out of foul trouble and anchors the team on both ends, they should move to 8-0. If Dickinson really struggles for the first time in his young college career, however, the Terps are plenty capable of knocking Michigan from the ranks of the unbeaten.