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Maryland may have the upcoming weekend off game-wise but they can’t escape what is beginning to settle in the world of college hoops: the dog days of the regular season where conference play is no longer new, yet the postseason feels a year away.  Under coach Mark Turgeon the Terps have been known for February fades: in his eight years at the helm, only the 2014-15 team posted a better record in the second half of conference play than the first (that wasn’t always the case as his last three teams at Texas A&M each had better marks in the second half of Big 12 play).  How does the coach plan to keep this team rested but not rusty?  “We’ll take a little more time off,” Turgeon said, “but when we get together we’ll practice hard.”  They could use a breather after a Big Ten schedule that gave them 10 games over a 31-day stretch between January 2nd and February 1st.  “We take care of our bodies–I think really do that on a high level,” sophomore forward Bruno Fernando said, “Even on our days off we’re coming in here trying to do recovery as much as we can.”

Things get lighter this month:  after Wednesday’s win at Nebraska, seven games remain over the final five weekends of the regular season.  “This is where teams fold or where teams get better,” said sophomore guard Darryl Morsell, “we don’t want to be the team that folds this year.”  Last year’s team lost seven of eight road games after the new year;  this year’s edition is 5-1 on the road since conference play resumed.  And they’ll have six days off before #15 Purdue comes to College Park next Tuesday.  “It gives us more time to watch film, which is what we really need,” Turgeon said, “and I think down the stretch we’ll probably do a little more with film than we will on the floor.”  After finishing the first half of Big Ten play 7-3, the Terps have won two of three.  They’ll have more time off, but after the Boilermakers come to Xfinity Center the Terps visit #7 Michigan and #20 Iowa.  One rough/ruff road, indeed.

Alma Mater Update- the Orange began Tuesday’s game with #22 Florida State by getting outscored 36-14, rallied to within one point of the Seminoles, and then was outscored 34-17 the rest of the way.  Suffice it to say this is one streaky team…and the Louisville-Duke-UNC gauntlet is a couple of weeks away.  Hopefully coach Jim Boeheim won’t be tossing his jacket Saturday when Boston College comes to the Carrier Dome.  Bring on the bubble once more…

 

Saturday’s Games:

Georgetown (15-8, 5-5 Big East) vs. Butler (13-10, 4-6), 12 p.m.,

The Hoyas are coming off of their first sweep of Providence since the conference realigned thanks to dominating the glass (a 50-33 rebounding advantage).  Road court advantage has held lately in this series:  the Hoyas have won three in a row at Hinkle Fieldhouse (where the rims remain ten feet above the court) while the Bulldogs have won three straight in DC.  Coach Patrick Ewing’s team shot 55% from three-point range in the two team’s meeting January 2nd–and that was a game they played minus Mac McClung.  Kamar Baldwin was the only Butler starter to score in double figures that night, and the junior lit up the Hoyas for 31 points the last time he came to Capital One Arena.  For the record, two years ago these two teams went to overtime in Washington–and last year’s game went to double-OT.  We politely ask that if you’re attending the game not to make an early dinner reservation.

#11 Virginia Tech (18-4, 7-3 ACC) at Clemson (14-8, 4-5) 12 p.m., ESPN2.  The Hokies come a home loss to Louisville where they allowed more points in the first 13 minutes than they did in 40 minutes at NC State.  Seriously, the Wolfpack sent the game back to the 19th century by shooting 9-for-54 and resembling teams playing the cartoon Harlem Globetrotters. The Tigers’ win over Georgia Tech Wednesday was its first on the road in league play and their third straight–but before you start looking at first and second round NCAA sites, remember the Yellowjackets are 3-7 in league play and the other two wins in the streak have come against Pitt and Wake Forest (a combined 4-16 in the ACC).

American (12-10, 6-5 Patriot League) at Army (11-13, 6-5), 2 p.m.  Two of the league’s three 6-5 teams get to this point from opposite directions:  AU has won four of five while the Black Knights have dropped three straight.  Despite having the conference’s best rebounder in Matt Wilson (8.6 boards per game), Army ranks seventh in the league on the glass.  The Eagles received a nice boost from Patriot League Freshman of the Week Jacob Boonyasith last week, only to see the guard experience growing pains (2 points on 1-6 shooting in the loss at Navy) this week.

VCU (16-6, 7-2 Atlantic 10) at St. Bonaventure (9-13, 5-4), 2 p.m. CBSSN.  Double-digit wins over George Mason and George Washington put the Rams one game out of first place in the conference at the halfway mark;  unfortunately they won’t play league-leading Davidson again in the regular season (the Wildcats took the January matchup at Belk Arena).  The Bonnies have won three of four, but losing three players to graduation and three more to transfer have forced coach Mike Schmidt to lean on freshman Kyle Lofton big-time this winter (the guard’s 38 minutes per game leads the A-10).

Howard (10-13 4-4 MEAC) at Florida A&M (9-14, 6-2), 4 p.m.  The Bison take to the floor for the first time since blowing a 24-point lead to Norfolk State in an 80-78 loss that saw a postgame scuffle brew out of the handshake line.  Three players will be suspended: Princewill Anosike, Jalen Jones and Andre Toure-of which only Anosike averages over 15 minutes per game this season.  The Rattlers provide a metaphorical one-two punch in being the best three-point shooting team in the MEAC while also allowing the second-fewest points per game in the league.  They also beat Howard in DC by ten January 5th thanks in part to turning them over 20 times.

Navy (8-14, 5-6 Patriot League) at Lehigh (15-7, 8-3), 4:30 p.m.  Consecutive wins over Loyola (MD) and American take the Mids from flirting with last place to one game out of third in the conference.  The Mountain Hawks are coming off of a loss to Colgate where they turned the ball over 21 times.  Lehigh did take the January matchup in Annapolis as senior Lance Tejada hit five three-pointers en route to 22 points.  The Mids need to get Evan Wieck the ball more:  the junior leads the Patriot League in field goal percentage (.708) but takes under five shots per game.

#3 Virginia (20-1, 8-1 ACC) vs #2 Duke (20-2, 8-1), 6 p.m., ESPN.  The Cavaliers were done no favors when the league schedule their home game with the Blue Devils two days before a roadtrip to North Carolina.  The makeup call?  Seven days to prepare for Coach K’s crew.  The meeting in Durham saw the two teams combine to shoot 67% from inside the arc and 5-for-31 (16) from three-point range.  Can UVa find a way to contain Zion Williamson & RJ Barrett (the duo tallied 57 points on 21-of-35 shooting)?  And will point guard Ty Jerome’s back (he sat out the Miami win) be good enough for him to keep pace with the healthy Tre Jones (14 points and 5 assists per game since his return from injury)?

George Washington (7-15, 3-6 Atlantic 10) at Richmond (9-14, 3-7), 6 p.m.  Good news for those who enjoyed the A-10 Tournament at Capital One Arena last March- the league’s postseason tourney returns to DC in 2022.  Even with none of the local schools reaching the weekend it was a great five days, with just one blowout (naturally the late Friday 3-vs-6 Quarterfinal) and a thrilling Final (Davidson upsetting Rhode Island 58-57).  The January meeting between these two schools saw the Spiders win by 20.  While rebounding (Richmond held a 38-25 edge on the glass) was a major factor that day, the major mismatch between these schools is ball security:  GW ranks 12th in the league in turnover margin while the Spiders’ Jacob Gilyard leads the conference in steals.

Sunday’s Game:

George Mason (13-10, 7-3 Atlantic 10) vs La Salle (7-14, 5-4), 2 p.m.  The Explorers are attempting to be this year’s Richmond:  last winter the Spiders bounced back from a 2-10 non-conference mark to post a .500 record in league play and almost upset NCAA Tournament at large team St. Bonaventure in the Quarterfinals.  The Patriots are trying to avoid becoming this year’s VCU:  the Rams lost six of eight last February to finish without a winning record for the first time since they joined the A-10.  Mason’s coming off a disaster in Richmond where they turned the ball over 20 times and allowed 57% shooting.  La Salle has won four straight–but those victories have all come against the bottom four schools in the league.

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“I like my team”.

Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said that last month on Media Day.  He also said those very words in the fall of 2014 when the Terps were coming off of a flurry of transfers and seemingly an eternity away from the NCAA Tournament.  When he was quizzed by a reporter how things turned awry after saying he liked his team last year, Turgeon responded “I don’t know if I said that.”  Regardless if he did or did not, what is a coach supposed to say in October?  Media Day is supposed to be an island of optimism in a sea of late night scouting sessions, long practices and longer road trips.  Should he offer up: “Things aren’t coming together- we will be lucky to win ten games this winter”?

Turgeon had every reason not to like his team last winter…as lofty preseason expectations dwindled into a 19-13 finish that saw the team struggle on the road, trail by 30 at halftime in the regular season home finale, and watch their Big Ten Tournament run end in with a loss in the final minute at Madison Square Garden.  After three straight years of making the NCAA Tournament last March was a bitter pill to swallow.  “We’ve done everything we can do to get back to the way we were the three years before that,” Turgeon said, “so our culture is back to where it needs to be-we’ve worked really hard.  All of our veteran guys have improved tremendously-not only on the floor but in their leadership skills and maturity.”

The main veteran leading the way this winter will be junior guard Anthony Cowan.  The Preseason All-Big Ten selection led the conference in minutes last season, and while freshman Eric Ayala is expected to spell him a bit at the point the Bowie, Maryland native is more than ready to take ownership in this team.  Cowan said, “I want that.  I want to be the person that everyone looks at when they need help on or off the court.”

While Cowan runs the offense, expect further growth for sophomore Bruno Fernando. “He’s worked really hard,” coach Turgeon said,” I think you’ll see a player that plays smarter defensively.  He’s become much more skilled, a much better low block scorer.”  Fernando led the team in blocks and was second in rebounds as a freshman.  He also led the Terps in unbridled energy–and coach Turgeon said his goal this fall was to make sure the Angolan stayed out of “fifth gear”.  Fernando’s new approach?  “Pacing myself a lot, sometimes I just try to go hard the whole time.  Sometimes I gotta slow down a little bit and see how the game is going and let it flow.”

Fernando will have plenty of help inside with the addition of five-star recruit Jalen Smith…and he’s already helped bring the freshman up to speed. “He’s a great guy, he pretty much took me under his wing since I came in here,” Smith said. “His energy just keeps the team going.”  The 6-foot-10 freshman from Mount St. Joseph’s High school is expected to make immediate impact, more with his deeds than words.  “For a McDonald’s All-American and a top ten player he’s very humble.”  Turgeon said, “And he’s very long.  I think once he puts up his first double double-which could happen the first night we play-the national attention will come.”

Smith is one of six freshmen making their debuts this fall:  Aaron Wiggins scored 14 points while starting the exhibition against Lynn while Eric Ayala and Serrell Smith played major minutes off of the bench.  Ayala’s the intriguing piece to the puzzle;  if he can spell Cowan at the point while also being productive at the shooting guard position the 6-foot-5 combo guard from Wilmington, Delware can provide a major boost off the bench.  But he feels the whole class will make an impact.   “We’ve been working really hard,” Ayala said, “we’re eager to get out there and play and show that we’re capable at this level.”

This young team enters a new era of Big Ten competition- for the first time they’ll be playing 20 conference games.  Three schools- Michigan State, Michigan and Purdue- begin the year in the AP Top 25 while the Terps are one of four Big Ten teams receiving votes (Indiana, Nebraska, and Wisconsin are the others).  Pesky Penn State that always gives Maryland fits comes to College Park December 1st in the league opener.  November’s non-conference tests include the Veterans Classic November 9th at Navy and a home game against Virginia in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge November 28th.  But a rebuild roster and revamped approach has the coach confident.  “I think our guys understand what it takes to win because they’ve listened.” Turgeon said. “And just because we’re young doesn’t mean we’re not talented; I like the mix.”

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The Melo Trimble Show is now only available on re-runs in College Park.  The point guard who helped lead the Terps to a 75-25 mark and three straight trips to the NCAA Tournament departed for the pros last spring.  But the cupboard is far from bare for coach Mark Turgeon:  “I’ve heard people say we have a young team.  I feel like we’re much more experienced than we were last year.  We’ve got eight of our top ten guys back–you know, the three freshmen become sophomores.”  Those three sophomores- Justin Jackson, Kevin Huerter and Anthony Cowan-made a combined 96 starts last year.  Jackson led the team in rebounding, Huerter made the most three-pointers on the roster, and Cowan actually had more assists and steals than Trimble.  The future isn’t just now for this team, it was here last winter as well.  “We relied on them a lot last year-quite a bit too.  I think (this year) they’re much more prepared,” Coach Turgeon added,”I do think every one of them has gotten a lot better.”

Justin Jackson almost wasn’t a part of the picture this season-as the forward from Ontario tested the NBA Draft waters last spring before deciding to return.  But he didn’t leave the draft workouts empty-handed.  “Going up against a lot of top guys-just proving to myself I can play on that level,” Jackson said, “it really helped the college game slow down for me, and I’m starting to make the right plays and make the right reads.”  The 6-foot-7 forward will play both forward positions this year for coach Turgeon: “he’s one of those guys now who is much more competitive and plays harder every day–has added to his game.”  Jackson actually led the team in three-point shooting (44%) as a freshman, and is focused on becoming more of a perimeter threat this season.  “I’ve been working on my ball-handling and making decisions,” Jackson said, “you got to know what you bring to the table and how you can help your team.”

If Jackson is able to shine at the small forward position-fellow sophomore Kevin Huerter can slide over to the shooting guard spot and provide major mismatches with his 6-foot-7 frame.  He’s tried to change his offensive approach after averaging 9.3 points per game as a freshman. “Coach Turgeon said he wanted me to get to the free throw line a little more…and that comes from not just shooting jumpshots.” Huerter said, “For me I’m trying to get into the paint–come to two foot stops and make plays off that.”  The Clifton, NY product also returns on a mission after the team melted in March: “We didn’t finish the way we wanted to last year…we lost first round Big Ten, first round NCAA’s.  I don’t think we stayed together as a team as well as we could have…and we definitely have to change that going into this year.”

Huerter may have played the most minutes of the trio and Jackson may have produced the most points and rebounds, but the catalyst on both ends of the floor will be Anthony Cowan.  Offensive possessions will more often than not begin with the ball in his hands.  “My message to Anthony is make the right decisions,” coach Turgeon said, “Read the situation–we have a read and react offense.  It’s about making the right decisions.  If Anthony does that we’re a much better offensive team.”  Cowan’s freshman year was a rollercoaster ride that saw the highs of 18 points against Richmond on a Friday night get followed up by an 0-for-3 shooting performance against Kansas State the next evening. Cowan said, “I just want to be a more consistent shooter.  The only way you can work on that I know is keep getting reps.”  Cowan scored 17 points on 6-of-9 shooting in the team’s exhibition victory over Randolph Macon.

There’s a foreign flavor in the frontcourt:  Slovakian center Michal Cekovsky is back after a fractured ankle ended his junior season.  Junior Ivan Bender (Bosnia-Herzegev) shot 75% from the field over his final six games last winter.  Graduate transfer Sean Obi (Nigeria) is healthy for the first time in two years.  Redshirt freshman Joshua Tomaic (Canary Islands) is better prepared after sitting out last season.  And Angolan Bruno Fernando should see major minutes as a freshman.  “I guess he’s a 6-10 Dez Wells,” Turgeon says, “plays to exhaustion-the kid’s amazing. Shot blocker, great rebounder. Very vocal…and we really haven’t had one like him:  athletic…skilled.”  A high-ankle sprain kept Fernando out of the exhibition against Randolph Macon, but he expects to play opening night at Stony Brook.

The other freshman of note comes to College Park from a much shorter distance than Angola:  Baltimore native Darryl Morsell brings a six-foot-four frame and projects to play both backcourt positions.  “Coach Turgeon told me when he was recruiting me that I’d be playing a little bit of point guard–I knew it would be a big adjustment when I got here but he told me he’ll help me.  It’s been going well.”  When it comes to playing in the Big Ten, size is–for lack of a better word–is huge. “Darryl gives us a defender on the perimeter that we really needed.  He’s a guy that loves to compete,” Turgeon said.  Other guards expected to contribute are senior Jared Nickens and junior Dion Wiley.

The Big Ten is back.  After being much-maligned in the regular season (just one team finished in the top 20) and sneakily successful in the NCAA Tournament (three schools in the Sweet 16), the league puts four teams in the Top 25–with Michigan State swimming amongst the favorites to win it all at #2 in both polls.  Maryland is one of three schools in the league also receiving votes, and will play seven games against the four ranked schools during the conference season-starting with #20 Purdue December 1st.  It was a loss to the Boilermakers at home last February that began a 4-7 tailspin to end the season after the Terps carved out a school-best 20-2 start.  Will the roster be ready for the conference clashes this winter?  “We’ve added three physical guys.  We’re a little bit more physical last year–which is good,” coach Mark Turgeon said, “I think our system will look a lot the same. We’re doing some different things in our small four-guard lineup that’s going to be really good for us.”  Early-season tests include a November 15th game against Butler (Bulldogs also receiving votes in both preseason polls) and a trip to Syracuse in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge November 27th (I’m going to take a flyer and say it might be cold that day up there).  The regular season tips off Friday, November 10th at Stony Brook and the Terps host Maryland-Eastern Shore November 12th in their home opener.

Penthouse Prediction:  the three sophomores click and freshman Bruno Fernando doesn’t disappoint.  The added physicality actually prevents the team from a the February fade they suffered the last two winters in league play.  The Terps don’t win the Big Ten but get to the tournament championship game.  A Sweet Sixteen trip in the Big Dance follows.

Worst Case Scenario:  Butler comes to College Park November 15th and exposes a young team that has yet to gel.  They aren’t ready for the early-December Big Ten games and instead of worrying about a February fade find themselves battling uphill all winter.  Their stay at Madison Square Garden is brief as they’re bounced in the second round…and the not-ready-for-prime-time players find their way into the NIT,