Aboard the return flight from Springfield, Mass., Maryland's basketball players applauded the dominance they had exhibited a few hours earlier against Memphis, a ranked opponent, and for good reason.
The Terrapins' defense was so feisty that it left one Memphis player questioning whether his teammates had quit. It left fans sitting near mid-court wondering if they had watched a tennis match. Back and forth the possessions went. The usual sequence: a Maryland steal or block preceding a Maryland dunk or layup.
Said Terps guard Chris McCray, "I really can't think of any negative points that we did wrong."
Maryland (3-0) will face a different challenge tonight, when it meets No. 25 Wisconsin at Kohl Center in Madison, where the Badgers have won 30 consecutive games. But the 12th-ranked Terps again will rely on their quickness, aggressiveness in the passing lanes and ability to block shots in tonight's ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Maryland Coach Gary Williams hinted in the preseason that this team had the potential to be the best defensive team he has coached in College Park. It's not yet December, but Maryland has shown traits to support that assessment. The Terps haven't allowed a team to shoot 40 percent or better in any half this season. They've forced at least 21 turnovers in each game. And 11 players have blocked at least one shot.
Expect Wisconsin, which prefers to run a half-court offense, to be more deliberate than Memphis. Maryland players don't expect the 24 points off fast breaks they tallied in the 84-61 victory over the Tigers, who were ranked No. 25 in the country before last Friday's game. Wisconsin will lean heavily on its front court, which has scored two-thirds of the Badgers' points this season. For the first time this year, Maryland must contend with traditional front-court players, such as Brian Butch, the 6-foot-11, 240-pound former McDonald's all-American who gained 30 pounds in the offseason.
"Wisconsin is a very disciplined team offensively," said forward Nik Caner-Medley. "It's not going to be as up and down. They slow it down and are going to be very fundamental with the ball and not make as many mistakes."
Through three games, Maryland is averaging nine blocks, the best mark of all ACC teams. Although Maryland blocked seven shots against Memphis, the Terps seemed to alter numerous other Memphis shooting attempts throughout the game. In the first minute, Maryland's Ekene Ibekwe blocked a Sean Banks shot, a play Caner-Medley believes contributed to Banks's 3-of-11 shooting effort.
"He put it right back into his face," Caner-Medley said. "That's something that's going to weigh on your mind throughout the game because it makes you alter your shot."
There is a drawback to being so aggressive contesting shots. Williams expects Wisconsin to try to get Maryland's front-court players in foul trouble. The past two seasons, Wisconsin has made more free throws than its opponents have attempted. "The only thing wrong with shot blocking, there is a tendency to foul or get out of position," Williams said. "Wisconsin is a good example of a team that plays almost a European style. Europeans don't try to block shots. They try to play position between you and the basket. We play a little different style, but there is a risk involved."
But Maryland's players are optimistic they can exploit their quickness even more than they did against the Tigers. That advantage, players noted, will be neutralized once Maryland enters the ACC schedule, so the Terps need to take advantage of it now.
Wisconsin is a team that has not been rattled under Coach Bo Ryan. The Badgers led the Big Ten in fewest turnovers for the third consecutive year last season. But Wisconsin is coming off an uncharacteristically poor road performance, in which it lost to Pepperdine by 14 points and trailed by as many as 25.
Without Devin Harris, who left for the NBA after his junior season, the Badgers have looked toward 6-5 Alando Tucker, who has made 16 of his last 22 shots. Caner-Medley or McCray, who played strong defense against Memphis, likely will cover Tucker, a sophomore.
"Our guys are going to have to mature in a hurry," Ryan said, "to be able to compete with what Maryland has back this season and where they are at this part of the season."