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Great expectations can be both a blessing and a curse in men’s college basketball. During the Mark Turgeon era, high hopes have more often than not led to misery in March for Maryland:  twice before they’ve been ranked in the Associated Press Preseason Top 25, and each time at the end of the season the Terps have finished below those November expectations (from third to 18th in the 2015-16 season, from 25th to unranked the following year).  This year they’re seventh in the AP;  time will tell if the AP stands for “Accurately Projected” or “Another Problem” for these Terps.

Unlike last November, head coach Mark Turgeon returns most of his talent:  seven of the eight players who averaged 10+ minutes per game last year are back, including four of his five starters.  That gives the coach a little bit of a luxury when it comes to working his talented freshman class into the mix.  “We have so much depth some guys are going to learn by sitting,” Turgeon said. “Last year we had to play guys through mistakes, turnovers, there really wasn’t an answer.  I think we’ll get better because of that.  Guys will correct things quicker because of that.”

The biggest piece added to the Terrapin puzzle is 7-foot-2 center Chol Marial; the big man comes to College Park from South Sudan through Compass Prep in Arizona.  He’s also going to have the most-delayed impact after having surgeries to correct stress fractures in both of his legs this past September.  Marial is expected to be on the shelf at least until December.  “He feels good but still has a little bit of swelling in the knees.  He’s lifting, he’s shooting, he’s doing some things on the floor,” Turgeon said. “We’ll do another appointment on November 25th. We’re hoping on that day he gets clearance.” Fans won’t have to wait long to see the other four freshmen:  6-foot-10 twin big men Makhi and Makhel Mitchell from Washington D.C. plus the Philadelphia pair of swingman Donta Scott and guard Hakim Hart are already making an impression in practice.  “Very talented (group), very physical and a good feel for the game,” Turgeon said. “They’ve fit in well-our guys really like them. What they do give us is some physicality.  Our practices are much more physical, and they need to be for us to play at the highest level.”

While freshmen contributing to a top-25 team is nothing new in 2019, a four-year senior starter is.  But look for yourself:  Anthony Cowan Jr. is back for one more winter.  And it’s not just to pursue his Masters of Professional Studies in Technology Entrepreneurship (Anthony earned his degree in Communication this past summer).  “Anthony came back to win. Anthony’s done a lot with scoring points and assists,” Turgeon said. “He wants his legacy to be winning and winning at a high level. He knows he’ll be remembered more if our team wins at a high level.”  That means not just winning 20+ games during the regular season but also making things happen in March.  Cowan’s led the team in scoring and assists the last two years;  what he hasn’t done is led them to Saturday (and the Semifinals) of the Big Ten Tournament or the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

While Bruno Fernando moves on to the NBA, the Terps cupboard inside is far from bare.  Jalen Smith is back for his sophomore season after ranking third on the team in scoring and second in rebounds and blocked shots.  Turgeon acknowledges that the Baltimore, Maryland product has bulked up, jokingly referring to the player commonly known as “Sticks” as “Logs”.  In all seriousness, they’ve looked to bulk up 6-foot-10 forward’s offensive game. “We really worked hard on him to score in a lot of different ways. He’s (already a) pretty good on the right block, a catch and shoot the three guy,” Turgeon said.  “We tried to a lot of different areas on the floor, played a ton of one on one since the season ended.”  There’s also the anticipation and the expectation of improvement on the other side of the floor. “His perimeter defense got so much better as the year went on last year it was all new to him— now I’m very confident in his perimeter defense and what he can do,” Turgeon said. “Post defensively he struggled when he had to guard a five last year. Hopefully the weight helps, hopefully the experience helps.”

With returning starters Eric Ayala Jr. and Darryl Morsell back in the fold along with role-players Aaron Wiggins, Serrell Smith Jr., and Ricky Lindo Jr.; the proverbial ceiling is high.  But if there’s anything his previous eight winters in College Park have taught Mark Turgeon, it’s that November is more than four months away from March–those two months are a lifetime apart for a team, no matter how talented.  Can this team be special?  “We’ll see. If they continue to be coachable and selfless. Those two things are really important,” Turgeon said. “Talent-wise and depth wise, yeah we got a chance, but if they’re coachable and they’re selfless then we’ll continue to get better and do some great things.”

 

 

 

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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.”