Terps Basketball; Looking Ahead To The Fall
Now that the dust has officially settled on the Maryland Terrapins off-season and we finally know who will and will not be on the roster next year (subject to a surprise late addition) we can start to assess the strengths and weaknesses of next season’s team. The season starts almost exactly five months from now…conjecture – even premature- is what sports fans do. So let’s try and make some sense out of how we got here and, more importantly, what we have.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
It’s funny how things can change so quickly in the basketball world. Two months ago the natural assumption was that Bruno Fernando had played his last game as a Terp and that next year would offer up a “star turn” opportunity for wing Kevin Huerter. Then Huerter- and it seemed like an afterthought at the time- decides to go to the NBA combine to evaluate what he might need to work on should he attempt to go to the NBA after his junior or senior seasons. Predictably Kevin and his hoops IQ stick out at the combine like, well, a red-headed kid at the NBA combine. In the blink of an eye he’s gone. Imagine, for a second, you’re an NBA guy who sits through year after year of the combine and one of the central parts of the multi-day event is when they put the invitees on “teams.” These are guard dominated games where the first guy over half court with the ball gets the shot. You see some awful basketball. When a guy comes in and makes the next pass and the right choice in addition to being able to stay in front of anybody defensively they are going to get noticed. All of a sudden, it’s goodbye Kevin….you’ll always be a Terp, now please rep CP in the league!
Bruno did nothing to really hurt himself in Chicago. He just wasn’t ready. A common question he was asked in interviews with numerous teams was ‘how will you feel with a big G on your uniform for the first two years?’ Virtually every team there was interested but had him ticketed for the G league. Obviously this is the most positive thing about the combine itself…it allows kids with question marks to get honest assessments. EVERY kid that goes to Chicago thinks he’s an NBA guy. You just have to be mature enough to roll with the punches when an NBA General Manager delivers the cold hard slap of reality. Bruno listened and he’s back. For a team that appeared on the precipice of losing their two best players his return is a game-changer.
There were some really interesting reads on Maryland message boards and public forums that centered on which of those two would you prefer to come back if you could choose only one. While I never kept track of what the voting was it seemed to me that the consensus was on the side of Huerter and largely because college hoops has become such a guard’s game over the past several seasons. It’s hard to disagree with that notion and I would love to have seen Kevin come back and get 20-22 per game and be a first team all-Big Ten player and the like. On top of all of that production Huerter offered a tremendously mature presence in the locker room and would have been a fabulous mentor to a guard-heavy incoming class of freshmen.
You might see this as “spin” but I always thought the return of Bruno might be more important for this particular team as well as their development over the next few seasons. While there is no question that college basketball is a guard’s game there are exceptions to the rule and we saw a bunch of them this year. Consider Deandre Ayton from Arizona. I get it that he’s the likely number one pick of the draft and a generational player but there were games this year where he had stat lines of 32- 14 and 26-20. Those numbers also don’t speak to things like rim protection and defensive presence. Even the best guards don’t offer those numbers. You think Bruno isn’t capable of that kind of production? Over the last 3-4 weeks of the season – when he finally learned how to stay out of foul trouble- Bruno had games of 20-10 (At Purdue, against a big time front line) and 18-16. We saw the tip of the iceberg over the last month of the season. Now he has had an offseason where he played at the combine against some of the best players in the country. That won’t hurt. Assuming good health, he’s in for a monster year next year. Let’s appreciate it.
Huerter’s departure also means there will be no coddling of the highly regarded incoming freshmen. Those guys will play from the opening tip of the first game. Much will be expected of a guy like Aaron Wiggins to come in and play big minutes AND produce. Every year there are good freshmen around the country that are ready from day one and he appears to be one of them. I did not go to the Capital Classic game that was played recently in town. At that game Wiggins scored 28 points and was the MVP of the game. My old high school coach, Red Jenkins, was in attendance at that game. He’s 81 and has seen every Classic game played and has even coached the local team twice. He called me the morning after the game raving about Wiggins and offered up a great observation. He said that he loved the fact that Wiggins scored “old school and new school.” When I asked for details he said that Wiggins showed off the whole arsenal – stepbacks, easy long threes, floaters in the lane, a fade away AND he got to the foul line. I thought to myself, ‘if he did all that he must’ve had 48 and not 28’ but I’ll never get in the way of a great story from an 81 year old lifer….
The last time I wrote in this space I was critical of a couple of different things. The first was the schedule and the second was the late game play of point guard Anthony Cowan. Well, the schedule just got dramatically better over the past few days with the addition of Virginia as the opponent for the Terps in the ACC/Big Ten challenge. I’m not a huge fan of the root canal style that UVA offers but they win and, most likely, will come into Xfinity in November with a top ten ranking. That will be a terrific opportunity. In addition there is still a game or two to be scheduled.
Regarding Cowan, all told he had a really good season last year as the Terps leading scorer. He was a warrior and battled tooth and nail in every game. Hopefully he takes the next step as a leader for a young team. He’ll never be as animated as a Vasquez or Gilchrist but he’s not them. He needs to find his stride with this group. I think he’ll be aided by the fact that there are other point guard options on this team in the freshman class. A guy like Eric Ayala will give Cowan two things – invaluable rest as well as the occasional option of playing off the ball, if need be.
Returnees Darryl Morsell and Josh Tomaic will be important contributors and I’d expect big improvement from both. Graybeard Ivan Bender has returned for his 17th season and his selflessness and maturity will help on both ends as well as in the locker room. Some folks like to dog his game a bit and he’ll never be the ‘wow’ guy but he does a lot of little things well, on and off the court. There’s a reason why Mark Turgeon and his staff worked so hard to keep him in College Park for one last season.
All in all that is an intriguing mix of old and new. There was some serious talent lost in the conference nationally– either through graduation or early exits- and there are vacuums to be filled. There is enough talent in College Park to be one those teams that surprise next year. The fact that virtually the entire group will be together for summer school and then on an invaluable ten day trip to Italy should play big dividends once November rolls around. I guess we’ll see soon enough.