COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- The numbers were clear. Defining, even. They could predict the odds of the 2015-16 Purdue Boilermakers winning a basketball game with something like near certainty. They said this:
When Purdue holds its opponent to fewer than 70 points, it wins. Period.
The tall, physical, deliberate Boilermakers got to keep that stat for their troubles Saturday, if only barely. The No. 4-ranked Maryland Terrapins -- thanks to key buckets from Robert Carter, on-point passing from Melo Trimble and their own brand of elite defensive work -- were happy to take home a 72-61 win instead.
Maryland's defense was just as good
The Boilermakers' identity all season has revolved around its defense -- which, at various points in November and December, was inarguably the nation's best and on pace to match the best defenses (Virginia, Arizona) in recent college hoops memory. Then Big Ten play began, and that status dwindled: Purdue entered Saturday's game ranked fifth in points per possession allowed in conference games alone.
Yet it also entered the matchup with its fundamental bellweather hanging on a tidily predictable line. The flipside of that 15-0 statistic? When the Boilermakers allowed more than 70 points, they were 4-4. Three of those losses had come in Big Ten play. It was fair to assume Saturday's game would hinge on that number -- on whether the Terps got where they wanted to go offensively, and how often.
Instead, Saturday's win was defined as much by the Terps' defense. Even as it struggled to score in the first half, Maryland held Purdue to just .833 points per trip -- and just two offensive rebounds -- on the other end of the floor. The Terrapins were even tighter in the second half. At times, it felt as if Purdue centers A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas might pound the Terrapins into submission around the rim; Purdue coach Matt Painter shoved the ball inside at every opportunity. For the first 15 minutes of the second half, UM had few answers. But that well dried up eventually, too, and Purdue's perimeter couldn't make up the difference. The Boilermakers finished 28-of-69 from the field despite 14-of-26 from Hammons and Haas. And they committed just 11 fouls in the process.
Robert Carter carries the load
To varying degrees, Melo Trimble and Diamond Stone are the most frequently talked-about Terrapins. It's understandable. Trimble is a former freshman phenom, the preseason All-American point guard having another excellent year (if less as a scorer than a floor-spacing, distributing offensive engine). Stone is the uber-talented lottery-pick center with the soft touch, the new freshman phenom, whose increasingly crucial contributions are widely seen as the key that will unlock whatever is behind the door marked "Maryland's ceiling."
Fair enough. Except here's the thing: Robert Carter is just as important as both players.
On Saturday, Carter was frequently the only thing sustaining the Terrapins on the offensive end -- especially in the first half. He very quickly established a two-man game with Trimble -- simple, elegant pick-and-pop (or handoff-pick-and-pop) stuff -- and Purdue's otherwise solid defense. Trimble was more than happy to attract defenders into the middle of the play before whipping a return pass to an open Carter on the wing. The result? Eleven of the Terps' 27 first-half points. No one else had more than six.
In the second half, Carter was back at it again, and his corner 3 with just over five minutes to play -- the result of a two-man action and a Trimble drive, naturally -- was arguably the biggest shot of the game. There was also a dunk, created by the same action (and an overaggressive closeout), and a running hook shot that woke up echoes of mid-1990s NBA players who plied their trade roughly around the time Carter was born.
It's this versatility that makes Carter so difficult to defend, that makes him (arguably, alongside Rasheed Sulaimon) Maryland's best defender on the opposite end, and that allows coach Mark Turgeon to utilize him in so many different ways.
Maryland is far more than the sum of its most-talked-about stars. Carter especially.
Don't worry: Trimble was good, too
Sure, Trimble didn't have his finest shooting night -- OK, that's an understatement -- in a 2-for-12 outing. But he did get to the free throw line 11 times, making 10.
Drawing a steady supply of fouls was Trimble's greatest asset as a freshman. As a sophomore, his court vision may have surpassed it. Trimble's seven assists Saturday barely describe the intuitive work he did on the offensive end, opening the few holes in Purdue's defense, whipping passes around the wing and drawing Purdue's bigs around the rim just long enough to dump the ball to a teammate for an open dunk.
As much as Turgeon will take the free throws, this evolution has to be seen as a positive: Maryland has more weapons now. And if Turgeon wants to keep winning, he needs to be a slightly different version of himself -- still aggressive, less reckless.
But he doesn't need to take a beating to win. The Terps -- from Carter to Stone to a defense that can out-defend Purdue over 40 minutes of basketball -- are proof enough of that.