Terps Basketball As 2018 Arrives
The good news is that the Maryland Terrapins will finally be playing some meaningful games again beginning this week against Penn State and Michigan State. The bad news is that they’ll be playing the games – and the rest of the season for that matter- seriously shorthanded after learning this weekend that forward Ivan Bender will join forward Justin Jackson on the bench with season ending injuries.
While clearly these are two huge losses the Terps just may have the talent and the stones to get to their fourth consecutive NCAA tournament. It won’t be an easy road in a Big Ten conference where there is a lot of parity and no clear favorites outside of Michigan State but there is a road nevertheless. If this team is going to make any noise at all in league play then some things are going to have to go their way. For instance:
First, no one else can get hurt. Got it?
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Guards Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter were already destined for major minutes per game. Now they’ll have to be iron men – both probably looking at 35+ minutes every night. Not only that they will clearly have to lead the way in every way, shape and form. If one of them struggles in a half or, God forbid, for an entire game, it might be difficult for this team to win. It’s a hell of a responsibility for two guys midway through their sophomore seasons but they’ll have to step up. Huerter will have to hunt more shots be far more proactive offensively. He certainly has the skill set…he just has to change his mentality a bit.
Youth will be served from this point forward. We already knew that Bruno Fernando and Darryl Morsell were two of the five best players on this team. Now you will see redshirt freshman Joshua Tomaic thrown into the action in the next couple of weeks with Bender out. All of them have to grow up at a much faster pace as a result of the injuries. Fernando needs to eliminate the silly fouls that often have him glued to the bench. Morsell has to have faith in his jumper. He can get to the rim at will off the dribble but he needs to prove that he can hit shots to get to the next level as a player. Structurally his shot is fine. He just doesn’t seem to believe in it just yet. If the Terps end up dancing in March it may well be because these two newcomers played well enough to make the Big Ten All-freshman team.
When given the opportunity Tomaic has played pretty well this season. Either he or grad transfer Sean Obi are going to be looking to be in the rotation for minutes at the power forward spot. The sample size for both players this year has been limited but the guess here is that Tomaic will be that guy given his versatility.
I know when Mark Turgeon began practice in late September he probably thought that this team would be best served by taking the same “small ball” approach that the rest of the basketball world is playing. The team’s best moments the prior year came with Jackson as the power forward – a matchup problem for a lot of other forwards. Because of that there were probably only a handful of times when Fernando and senior center Michal Cekovsky were ever on the floor together. We might be seeing that regularly over the next couple of weeks out of necessity – and that’s not a bad thing. The initial worry might be leaving a guy like Bruno out on an island playing man to man defense 20 feet away from the basket. Fine, play zone with a big lineup. Nobody does it anymore. Any way you look at it, Turge and his staff are going to have to pivot at this point and try some things that they may not have considered prior to the brutal news of the last week.
Penn State comes to College Park in a very similar situation to the Terps – aside from the general health of their roster. The Nittany Lions are 11-4 compared to Maryland’s 12-3. Both teams are in the same neighborhood in the computer -Kenpom has Terps at 29 and PSU at 40. Both have one ugly loss. PSU’s “St. Bonaventure game” was a bad one point loss at home against Rider. Both teams are 1-1 in the league and their one conference win came on the road (PSU won at Iowa). Games like these are “separation games” where you’re trying to ensure that you’ll be in the conversation in league play moving forward. Losing at home to Penn State sure won’t help that cause – regardless of the injury situation. The games between these teams since Maryland joined the Big Ten have always been remarkably hard-fought, close games. This one will be no different.
Barely 48 hours after the Penn State game is over Maryland will find themselves in East Lansing, Michigan. There they will find a 14-1 Michigan State team that will be the number one ranked team in the country and has been destroying teams. They average almost 87 points per game and do virtually everything well – particularly at home.
At this point there is no real opportunity to relish the opportunity of playing the national number one on Thursday if you don’t take care of business on Tuesday (against Penn State). Sometimes when you have an abundance of talent you can take a look at the schedule in chunks, with an eye on a particular upcoming game. The Terps have lost that luxury at this point. They were already a team whose depth was on the questionable side and have now lost two versatile, experienced players at the one of the worst times possible – just as conference play is to begin.
It was a bad week for the Turtles, to be sure. But that doesn’t have to mean it’ll be a bad year.