When you look at Maryland's three previous losses this season, the first key to beating the Terrapins is to be the home team. So Wisconsin is already playing from behind as a road dog.
Looking deeper for common threads in the losses, there isn't much to grasp. Only two themes stand out: free throw rate and defensive efficiency. Obviously teams tend to shoot fewer free throws when they are behind, instead of getting fouled intentionally when they are leading. So the Terps' free throws rates against North Carolina (18.6), Michigan (19.0) and Michigan State (28.1) being far below their season average of 37.3 can be partially explained that way.
As for the defensive efficiency, the Maryland defense has surrendered around 1.13 points-per-possession in all three losses. The Badgers have had an adjusted offensive efficiency above that mark four times in conference play, but never on the road.
Needless to say, the task at hand is a big one. For my money, the Terps are definitely a serious national title contender, and the pundits agree. Maryland is very balanced on offense, yet their two-point shooting ranking second in the nation at 57.7 percent thanks to a huge lineup. And in a close game, the Terps make their free throws. Defensively, Maryland is even more impressive, boasting the top-ranked defense in the Big Ten. The Terrapins pace the league in blocked shots, effective field goal percentage allowed and three-point percentage allowed.
It is clear Wisconsin will need to bring it's best offensive execution to upset Maryland, so what are some ways the Badgers can accomplish this?
1. Offensive rebounding
Even as Wisconsin struggled out of the gates, the team was earning a reputation as an offensive rebounding powerhouse. The Badgers' offensive rebounding rate never dropped below 30 percent in the non-conference.
Part of the reason was a poor conversion rate at the rim. There were simply a lot of second chance opportunities for UW. That reason has dwindled as many of those chances have translated into free throw attempts. Another reason why the OR rate has declined (and is regularly in the 20s now) is simply better competition.
Of course, Charlie Thomas and Khalil Iverson were playing more minutes under Bo Ryan and now those freshmen's minutes have been cut drastically during the Big Ten season in favor of the smaller Jordan Hill or less aggressive players like Alex Illikainen and Aaron Moesch. I had assumed that a fourth reason would have been Greg Gard's reemphasis on getting back on defense -- an old-school Wisconsin principle -- to prevent easy scores while sacrificing second chances. That connection proved weak, however. The Badgers give up less than five fastbreak points to Big Ten foes on average, but that number was higher against Ohio State and Indiana, no to mention their overall defensive efficiency has gotten worse during their winning streak.
Meanwhile, Diamond Stone has moved back into the Terps' starting lineup, giving them a scary frontline that nearly rivals the 2014-15 Wisconsin Badgers. Stone, Robert Carter and senior Jake Layman can dominate the offensive glass, not to mention reserves 6'11 Damonte Dodd and 7'1 Michal Cekovsky. Statistically speaking though, Maryland is still average at keeping opponents away from offensive boards.
A few easy buckets off misses here and there will be critical for Wisconsin to avoid long scoring droughts. Another byproduct of good offensive rebounding is the deadly kickout three-pointer, which brings us to...
2. Three-point shooting
Maryland is not a great three-point shooting team either. In fact, if you take away the Terps' offensive explosion against Ohio State and a recent 7-for-16 outing versus Nebraska, they've shot worse than 37 percent from downtown in every Big Ten game. The Terrapins shot 4-of-11 on triples against Wisconsin in their first meeting, but Melo Trimble happened to bury the most important one of the night.
Most glaringly, Jared Nickens entered the season as the prospective sharpshooter off the bench, but he's only hit 9 of his 46 triples (19.6%) in 12 conference games. Wisconsin will be aware of everyone at the arc, but if the Badgers suffer a breakdown -- as they've been known to do -- cross your fingers that an open Nickens is having another off night.
While Rasheed Sulaimon has been the most consistent three-point threat for the Terrapins all year, the guy Wisconsin cannot lose track of is Carter. At 6'9, Carter can lull the average fan into thinking he's just another Maryland big man with his size and athleticism. However, over 71 percent of his shots are jumpers, according to Hoop-Math.
Wisconsin counters with the red hot Vitto Brown, fresh off his career-high 18 points against the Cornhuskers. The junior has hit 10 of his last 13 from inside the arc, but also made a trio of three-pointers as the Badger outside shooting renaissance continued earlier this week. After shooting an insane 53 percent (24-for-45) from long distance in its previous two wins, will UW's accuracy return to earth?
A happy medium could work. Hill has been particularly clutch against Big Ten foes and as UW saw first-hand from Trimble, hitting a big three at the right time makes up for a lot. Bronson Koenig's confidence appears to be back as well, though his struggles on the road are well-documented. A return to the 2-for-14 shooting from deep which Wisconsin experienced against Illinois would be a clear indication of defeat, but another lights out performance won't guarantee anything either if other facets of the game are ignored.
3. The return of Ethan Happ
Three straight Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors, a career-high 25 points in a win over Indiana and a growing reputation as a ball thief. Things were coming together wonderfully for Ethan Happ in his redshirt freshman season.
Then that parade to the free throw line became more difficult over the last three games and Happ's efficiency dropped. He bottomed out versus Nebraska with his fewest minutes (17) and worst performance since Purdue in the conference opener, failing to net a single field goal.
Never fear. Happ was probably just saving his energy for a big finish, right? The center tandems from Nebraska, Ohio State and Illinois were about as inexperienced as you can find, totaling 26 points and 17 fouls against Wisconsin. Happ was still a contributor, notching six assists over the past two games. Furthermore, there is a good precedent for Happ coming up big in big games.
In the loss to Maryland, Happ was the bright spot that kept Wisconsin afloat by shooting 8-of-14 against the Terps' vaunted front court. He finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds. Ditto the overtime win over Indiana, when Happ shot 10-for-15. In all, he scored in double-figures in seven consecutive games before playing the home-state Illini.
When the ball tips in College Park on Saturday evening, Ethan Happ is going to be locked in. If he can repeat his previous performance against Maryland, while his teammates provide some timely outside shooting and help on the offensive glass, Wisconsin is going to make a run at this one.