On Wednesday Baltimore Sports and Life’s (BSL) Terps Analyst Michael Willis posted his 2014-15 preview for Maryland Basketball, which can be found here. Today BSL continues our look ahead to the upcoming season, with the thoughts of several different analysts.
Those who participated in this Q&A are:
Mike DeCourcy, Sporting News
Jeff Ermann, Inside MD Sports
Chris Garman, PressBox
Our thanks to each of them for taking the time to respond.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
Baltimore Sports and Life: The 2014-15 season will be Coach Turgeon’s 4th at the helm of the University of Maryland’s program. Despite that continuity at the top, it feels like a period of transition for the Terrapins. Obviously the Terps are entering the uncharted waters of The Big Ten. Additionally there has been heavy turnover with the roster (departures from Seth Allen, Roddy Peters, Shaq Cleare, Charles Mitchell, & Nick Faust; arrivals of Melo Trimble, Dion Wiley, Jared Nickens, Michael Cekovsky, Richaud Pack, and potentially Ivan Bender). With these changes, do you have a good feel for what MD is capable of this year, or are you in a total wait-and-see mode like many Terps fans?
DeCourcy: I think it’s extremely difficult to know what to expect from the Terps this year. There’s so much changing, and it starts with the league. Moving from one to another is rarely easy. Ask West Virginia about how tough its transition to the Big 12 was. The travel is different, and certainly longer. The games can be officiated differently — and at the very least the crews will be somewhat unfamiliar. If Maryland can be anywhere near .500 in the league, I’d say it will be a heck of a year.
Ermann: It’s challenging trying to forecast this season because of all the new pieces you mentioned. I don’t believe most of the departures are net losses, with the exception of Seth Allen. Maryland will need to replace his scoring in the backcourt, but Turgeon does have talent there and a proven go-to play in Dez Wells. But I would say yes, I’m in wait-and-see mode. It’s an easy cop-out, but there are simply too many unknowns to make any kind of confident prediction.
Garman: I’m more of a wait and see mode because of the uncertainty around the team. Losing so many pieces has made this recruiting class much more important. Most of the incoming freshmen will be counted on for major minutes each game, whether off the bench or in the starting lineup. Building chemistry with several new players will be difficult as well. It will be interesting to see how Trimble, Wiley, Nickens and the others will mesh with Dez Wells, Jake Layman and the rest of the returning players.
Baltimore Sports and Life: As mentioned above, one of the additions is Trimble. The McDonald’s All-American is looked at as one of the keys to the season – as he figures to run the MD offense from Day 1. Lots of previews on Trimble have pointed to his strong work ethic and basketball iq. Even if you are not overly familiar with him directly, can you speak on your comfort of turning an offense over to a Freshman? Also, what do you see as the most difficult transition for players from HS, into an early prominent role as a College Freshman?
DeCourcy: I did see Trimble in summer ball, and I liked what I saw. I don’t worry about turning the offense over to a freshman, if the player demonstrates that he deserves it. I wouldn’t hand anything to Trimble on Day 1. He’d have to earn it. But assuming that he does, he’s got the physical strength and varied game to be a very good Big Ten player.
The most difficult transition from high school to college is that the entire level is so much more sophisticated. In high school a great talent can get by on that and desire; in college he has to have both of those plus a great work ethic, a willingness to learn and a higher level of intensity. In the transition, a player goes from playing in front of hundreds to playing on TV almost every night. That can be tough on anyone. It’s why college basketball is so valuable in the talent development process. A player has to raise every part of his game to succeed.
Ermann: The good news here is he’s about as steady as they come in terms of freshman guards. He’s also a bit older than the average freshman. Time and again, he produced big numbers and won on the big stage in AAU and high school ball. The bigger question is, is he a point guard? He was more of a scoring guard in high school. So while I have little doubt he has the ability to be a legitimate starter, it remains to be seen how comfortable he’ll be at the point. But he has spent the past few years working on his point guard skills.
Garman: Bringing in a freshman point guard to run the offense is similar to turning the offense over to a freshman quarterback in football. The inexperience is a cause for concern, especially late in close games. It’s hard to remain confident and keep trust that they will always make the best decisions. It will take time for Trimble to fully earn the trust of Turgeon and the rest of the Terps players. The biggest transition from high school to college is the speed of the game and the level of competition. In high school, the more talented players are head and shoulders above the rest, but in college everyone was a top tier player in their league and conference during high school. Also, in most situations those talented high school players come to a college team where they are no longer the focal point of the offense like they were in high school. Sometimes that transition from being “the guy” is a difficult one.
Baltimore Sports and Life: Maryland and Georgia Tech essentially traded bigs – with Charles Mitchell becoming a Yellow Jacket, and Robert Carter joining MD (eligible for 2015-16). Without Mitchell, the Terps Front-court is that much thinner for ’14-’15. (Maryland also dismissed incoming Freshman Trayvon Reed during August.) People who have seen Damonte Dodd this Summer / Fall, are optimistic about his improvement; but he is still very raw and played just 166 minutes last year. Jonathan Graham is fine as a rotation big, that provides defense and energy as a reserve – but you don’t want to have to rely on him for significant minutes.
There is pressure for 7’1, 235lb Freshman Michal Cekovsky to provide some immediate production alongside Senior PF Evan Smotrycz. Any thoughts on Cekovsky based on anything you’ve seen / heard? As the roster exists now, would you advocate MD regularly utilizing a smaller alignment?
DeCourcy: He is an impressive talent. Very good feet for a player his size, highly skilled and a nice athlete. All that said, he faces perhaps a greater transition than even the American high school kids. He’s got used to playing in America, where the game is the best. That means high-level opposition most every time out. Some very good European players never were able to adjust. It’d be a mistake to put too much pressure on Cekovsky to serve as a No. 1 option. If he’s that player, it’ll happen naturally.
Ermann: I think they’ll play quite a bit of small ball for the reasons you mentioned, and because their best players are all perimeter-oriented. It’s still unknown who’ll start at center — Turgeon recently said Dodd is the favorite — but he was raw and physically overwhelmed last year. Cekovsky is a major talent, but I don’t expect him to be a guy you throw the ball into and expect him to score consistently with his back to the basket. He’s more of a skill guy. Graham is a solid energy guy, but he’s undersized and not much of an offensive threat. Lots of questions in the frontcourt.
Garman: The Terps’ front-court is definitely the biggest weakness heading into the new season. Dodd and Graham have showed promise in their minutes last season, but I see them more as role players off the bench than starters. Cekovsky reminds me a lot of Alex Len when he came to Maryland. A tall, long and athletic big man that will protect the rim defensively, but very raw on offense. In watching Cekovsky’s highlight tape, he does not show a consistent low-post game with his back to the basket. I don’t expect much scoring production to come from the Terps’ big men.
I would advocate for a small starting lineup to start the season, but monitor the team’s defense with the smaller lineup. Turgeon has always liked to tinker with his starting lineups and I think that will continue through the season. He’ll likely change his starting lineup based on the team they are playing.
Baltimore Sports and Life: Pack is the one incoming player with experience – the North Carolina A&T transfer averaged 34.2 minutes, and 17 ppg last season. Lots of comments from teammates and Coaches this Summer about the leadership he’s brought the roster. Starter or 6-man, he figures to get plenty of playing time during his 1 year in College Park; but when you look at the roster – which role do you think would better suit him?
DeCourcy: Let’s be fair. He had a very nice year playing for a terrible team in a low-major league. That means he can play, but without seeing him I can’t say what he can accomplish at Maryland’s level. If he’s a Big Ten talent, he’ll prove it in practice by hanging with Dez Well and Dion Wiley. That’ll determine what his role will be. It’s impossible to gauge the impact of a transfer going from low-major to high-major without seeing him in practice.
Ermann: I think he’ll likely start the season as the sixth-man, spelling Wells, Trimble and Jake Layman. But at some point, one of those guys is bound to struggle and he could very well move into the lineup. He’s a grown man who brings craftiness, toughness and scoring. He’ll get a lot of minutes regardless.
Garman: Pack’s role either in the starting lineup or off the bench will be based on if Turgeon is comfortable starting Layman at power forward. With Trimble and Wells seemingly at the point and shooting guard positions, it would take a lot of production to move Wells to small forward and Layman for power forward. Pack could be a much needed spark of the bench for the Terps and bring a change of pace to the offense. He is an aggressive offensive player that gets to the basket and that can knock down shots from behind the arc. Pack was able to score at a relatively high rate last season, but will be up against much better competition with Maryland.
Baltimore Sports and Life: The heart of the team is Dez Wells. BSL’s own Michael Willis wrote about the Senior being the ‘Unlikely Leader and Consummate Teammate.’ He has been named to The Big Ten’s All-Conference Pre-Season Team in The Sporting News preview. Where do you rate him among Big Ten players going into the year? Where are you specifically looking for him to improve?
DeCourcy: Dez is a very valuable college player. Who wouldn’t want a wing who can defend, rebound and get to the rim like he can? If Dez had become a better shooter, he’d be an All-America level player. As it stands, he will rank as one of the 10-12 best in the Big Ten. I’m not sure I’d have picked him ahead of Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell if it were my choice, but that’s OK because I would have picked him ahead of Purdue’s A.J. Hammons. So Dez would still be on there.
Ermann: He’s a top-ten Big Ten player with the potential to be in the top five. When he’s attacking on the break, there are few better — not just in the conference, but in all of college basketball. The question is, can he become a consistent 3-point threat? That would draw defenders to him, creating a lot of extra opportunities to drive. He also needs to cut down on the turnovers and improve defensively against quick guards, not just for Maryland’s prospects this year, but to prove he’s capable of guarding in the NBA.
Garman: I definitely think Wells is one of the top guard/forward combos in the conference. His versatility is what makes him stand out the most, having the ability to play multiple positions and run the offense. The workload on Wells could be very heavy, having to lead so many young players and provide production on both ends of the floor. He really is the anchor of this Maryland team and it feels like the Terps will go as far as Wells takes them in 2014-15.
His biggest area of improvement is ball security. He led the team in turnovers by a wide margin last season and that’s not something you want to see from your best player. Attacking the basket and being a playmaker, turnovers will happen, but Wells certainly needs to cut down on his turnovers in the new season.
Baltimore Sports and Life: In his Sophomore year, Jake Layman’s numbers and production improved across the board. When he’s playing with confidence he looks great. When things go wrong, he can often be invisible. It feels like there is additional ceiling in his game. Does he reach another level this year? For this team, do you like him better as a 3, or as a slightly undersized 4?
DeCourcy: I like him as a 4 because Dez’ best position is the 3, and I want to get the best player on the court first. Being honest, I think the biggest problem for Jake last season was simply there wasn’t enough around him. The Terps were playing in the ACC with maybe two or three first-rate ACC players. This team has more high-major talents: Trimble, Dion Wiley, Dez, Cekovsky and Smotrycz at the very least along with Jake. Given that and another year’s maturity, he should have a better chance to succeed.
Ermann: He’s my sleeper. I still feel like Layman has NBA potential if he ever comes out of his shell (no punt intended). He’s got a pretty 3-point stroke, excellent length and athleticism, and has improved as a defender and rebounder. But as you mentioned, his confidence wavers easily and last year he disappeared often against good teams. Part of that is the result of his struggles to put the ball on the floor; he rarely attacks off the dribble because of this, and defenders simply guard him for the jumper. In some ways, I feel like Maryland’s fate rests on Layman. If he stays the same, the team probably doesn’t improve a lot. If he realizes how good he can be, improves his handle and gets meaner, that gives you two borderline stars with he and Wells.
Garman: Layman is one of my favorite players on this Maryland team. His long range shooting to go with his athleticism around the basket makes him a breakout star waiting to happen. Confidence seems to always be Laymans biggest issue. If he makes a shot or two early in a game, he carries it through the remainder of the game. If he misses early, he has a tendency to sit in the corner and get lost in the offense. He needs to be more assertive on the offensive end of the floor and I think he does that this season. Now a junior, I think Layman will step into more of a leadership role and begin to be more aggressive.
His game is better suited to be a three, but if he can increase his physical play in the post, he can transition into a power forward. He has the size, but needs a little more weight and a low-post game to be a power forward. With the better players for Maryland being at guard, if Layman can contribute as a power forward, that would be an ideal scenario for Turgeon.
Baltimore Sports and Life: Trimble and Cekovsky are joined by two other talented Freshman in Wiley, and Nickens. Both should help improve MD’s shooting, and overall athleticism. As Maryland wants to play more up-tempo this year, how important is it that Wiley and Nickens quickly become regular members of the rotation?
DeCourcy: I think it’s important that at least three of the four freshmen prove they are ready to play now because Maryland needs their talent on the court. It’s important not to rush players who aren’t ready, but if at least Trimble and Cekovsky and one of the other two can contribute now, Maryland makes that much more progress to competing immediately and to being better in year two. It really doesn’t even matter which one because they’re both nice-sized wings. And if both can help now, there’s probably enough playing time available.
Ermann: I don’t know if both need to become part of the rotation, but one does. You’ve got Trimble, Wells and Pack, and not much behind them. So I expect it to be a de facto competition between Wiley and Nickens for that fourth guard spot. Nickens is longer and probably better defensively, but Wiley has star potential down the road because of his offense. And from what I’ve heard, he’s shown off an improved all-aruond game this fall. So he’s a slight favorite to get more of those minutes.
Garman: One of the biggest aspects of playing uptempo is having a deep bench that Turgeon can go to for fresh legs. Guys off the bench like Wiley and Nickens will be needed to contribute effective minutes through the season if the Terps want to compete in the Big Ten. Maryland relied heavily on the three point shot last season and these newcomers will play into that mold. All of the players new to the Maryland program will be important this season and will be counted on to produce and give Turgeon depth in his player rotations.
Baltimore Sports and Life: The OOC schedule is highlighted by Arizona State, & either Iowa State or Alabama in the CBE Tournament. That will be followed Virginia (at home) in the ACC / Big Ten Challenge, and a trip to Stillwater to face Oklahoma State. Thoughts on any of these opponents? Does the OOC schedule look appropriate to you, or would you like to see ‘more’?
DeCourcy: More? If anything, I might have voted for less. It’s a developing team. But the good thing is there are other teams that are in the same circumstance: Alabama, OK State. Neither is a sure thing, so it’s Maryland’s job to convince the Tide and the Cowboys they’re not there yet.
Ermann: It looks like a solid schedule to me. Not a murderer’s row, but respectable. And with Turgeon trying to develop a young team, playing a loaded early schedule would risk blowing his team’s confidence. So I think it’s appropriate.
Garman: I would have liked to see another quality opponents in the non-conference schedule. It was probably smart for Turgeon to schedule the way he did, but a weak non-conference schedule could hurt the Terps come tournament selection time. Lesser quality opponents makes every matchup much more important and leaves little room for error. Playing a quality conference schedule allows Maryland to make up for a loss or two in the non-conference, but one bad loss to a low quality opponent could doom them early. The Oklahoma State game is the one I have circled on the non-conference schedule, being the only true road game in that portion of the schedule. Getting a win there could be one that propels them into the NCAA Tournament come March.
Baltimore Sports and Life: The aforementioned Sporting News preview has MD finishing 7th in The Big Ten, with Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Nebraska being the ranked conference foes. Do you see the Conference similarly? What do you think will be the Terps biggest on-floor adjustment to life in their new league? Willis also wrote that MD could be the fastest team in The Big Ten. Agree with that?
DeCourcy: I’m a little less optimistic than Michael Bradley, who made the picks for the yearbook. I think Illinois and Minnesota are better positioned for the season than Maryland. But the nice thing for the Terps is that from 2-14 there isn’t much certainty. There are some promising teams, but Maryland is one of those. If anybody other than Wisconsin wins the Big Ten, I’ll be surprised. The only thing that would surprise me beyond that is a tournament bid by Penn State, Rutgers or Northwestern. And honestly, the Lions and Wildcats have a shot. The league is very promising top-to-bottom, but there aren’t many sure things. So Maryland can make its own breaks.
Ermann: On paper, it looks like Wisconsin and then everyone else. Tom Izzo said there are nine teams that could end up at or near the top; I’m nor sure it’s that wide-open, but there’s a lot of parity because so many star players are gone from last season. I’m not sure if Maryland’s the fastest team in the league, but if not, they should be close. They lost some speed in Allen and Peters, though, so I might rephrase that as the most ‘agile’ team in the conference. Which is why they’ll play small ball, as mentioned. But I need to get a better look at these other teams with all their new players before I crown them as the fastest.
Garman: I think 7th in the conference is a best case scenario for the Terps. Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Ohio State will be the class of the conference with Michigan, Nebraska, and Minnesota being in the second tier. It will be hard to me to see them finishing above any of those six teams. I have them finishing 9th in the conference, with Iowa and Indiana finishing above them.
The biggest adjustment in coming to the Big Ten will be their attention to the defensive end of the floor. In previous years, the conference always seemed to have some of the best defensive teams in the country. Maryland will need to play better team defense in the conference and win low scoring games. Few conference games will be high scoring contests and that’s where their focus should be entering the conference.
The team speed is beneficial to their uptempo style of play. The Terps will still be built like a traditional ACC type team and that’s something that could be used to their advantage in the Big Ten. The only down side of high team speed and uptempo is it increases the chances for turnovers.
Baltimore Sports and Life: Maryland’s conference move was predicated on the poor finances of the Athletic Department. While the finances are now expected to improve – that change will not be felt immediately over night. Turgeon originally signed an 8 year deal with MD, at $1.9M annually. Even if MD misses the Tournament again, it seems unlikely to me that MD could be in position to buy-out Turgeon, and hire a new a staff with any additional promise. Can you envision a scenario where MD again does not make the Tournament, but you would still feel positive about the direction of the program?
DeCourcy: Oh, absolutely I could. The key is for the young players to contribute and to end the year with a good feeling about their circumstance. If it produces a tournament bid, wonderful. But the Terps need those freshman to have a positive experience and to be eager to return for another shot in 2016.
Ermann: Sure, if they improve from last season, the young guys look like they’re going to be serious players and they barely miss the tournament, that would be viewed as an improvement — or at least a reason for substantial optimism. But at this point, after a four-year drought, no one inside the program or in the fanbase is going to be please without a tournament bid.
Garman: Coming off an offseason where so many players transferred out of the program and even losing some assistant coaches for various reasons, it is hard to feel positive about the direction of the program. If Maryland fails to make the tournament again this season, I don’t envision a way that the season could be looked at as a positive. Even if the Terps are able to pull off some upsets and get some quality wins, a tournament bid is needed to be confident moving forward. Too many negatives have surrounded the program over the past couple seasons and only strides towards postseason success can make the direction of the program seem better. Turgeon has his work cut out this season and the fan base is growing more and more impatient each season.
Baltimore Sports and Life: Turgeon has been quoted as saying he has never felt better about his program. In your opinion, the Terps can get back to the NCAAT for the first time since 2010, if what occurs? Are you optimistic or pessimistic on MD dancing?
DeCourcy: I’d say I’m not optimistic, but I’d put them in the category of teams that have a chance. If they can adjust quickly, they’re actually in a better position in the Big Ten than they were in the ACC last year — and certainly than they would have been this year. The Big Ten is a much deeper league, which makes every game more difficult, but it’s not going to be as powerful at the top. Two of our top five teams are from the ACC, and four of the top eight. It’s harder to get wins against those teams, and wins against the middle and bottom don’t mean as much. The balance in the Big Ten actually could lead to this being an eight- or nine-bid year, if those teams perform out of conference. Which means if Maryland is winning at home, it should be defeating some NCAA-caliber teams. And that’s how you get in. So it’s possible. It’s going to be hard, but it’s possible.
Ermann: They go to the tournament if at least two of these three things happen: the freshmen guards show up ready to play, the frontcourt production on both ends is at very least adequate, and Jake Layman takes the next step. Those are the clear-cut keys. You know what you’ve got in Wells, Smotrycz and to some extend, Pack. It’s a matter of how good the unproven players surrounding them perform.
In terms of my expectations, gun to my head, I think they go to the tournament because of good guard play and a warrior in Wells. But it’s far from a lock. Ask me again after 10 games!
Garman: If they beat the teams on their schedule that they are better than, that’s step one. Maryland cannot afford to lose games against inferior opponents, especially in the Big Ten. They will also need to pull off an upset or two during conference play.
For them to do this, it will start on the defensive end of the floor. Team defense will be the key. Everyone rotating to open spots on the floor and making the opponents always take contested shots. They will also need the bigs to be rim protectors and alter shots in the paint.
The next key will be ball security and not wasting possessions, this could be reflected by their defense. Getting stops on defense and turning it into quick offense suits the style that the Terps want to play. If Maryland forces the tempo and dictates the pace of play, they will need to avoid turning the ball over. Turnovers in this conference will lead to immediate offense for the opponent and limit the amount of quality shots the Terps will get.
A lot of things will need to go right for the Terps to make the tournament this season. Trimble will need to be as good as advertised and the returning players like Wells, Layman, Smotrycz, Dodd and Graham will need to be dependable players all season. If Maryland makes the tournament, Wells will have to put the team on his back and carry them into the big dance.