Terps Basketball: Q&A With Mike DeCourcy & Scott Phillips
Jim Jackson has returned to Maryland, and the forthcoming roster is in greater focus. To evaluate where the Terps are, Baltimore Sports and Life (BSL) has reached out to Mike DeCourcy (Sporting News), and Scott Phillips (NBC Sports / College Basketball Talk) for their thoughts on Maryland.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
BSL: With Justin Jackson removing his name from the NBA Draft, the Maryland roster looks like:
Guards: Cowan, Huerter, Morsell, Wiley
Wings: Jackson, Nickens
Bigs: Cekovsky, Bender, Fernando, Tomiac, Obi
General thoughts on that roster, and how that group compares to what the rest of the Big Ten will have to offer?
DeCourcy: I love the guards and wings. I know they’ll miss Melo, but the decision to play him and Cowan together means Anthony has had a full year as more or less a fulltime point guard. That’s enormous relative to this season. I believe the three sophomores give Maryland as potent a perimeter trio as there is in the Big Ten, although Jackson obviously operates as a stretch-4. Him being able to continue in that spot will be dependent on either Wiley or Nickens recovering his potential or Daryl Morsell being ready to go now.
The inside game on paper looks fine. I liked what Ceko was becoming before he got hurt, and Bender is solid at the minimum. How healthy will Cekovsky be, though? Give me him at close to 100 percent on Day 1, and I think Maryland’s only worry up front is depth.
Phillips: I’m intrigued by this Maryland roster. But the difficult part about projecting this roster is we don’t know who steps up in place of Melo Trimble. It’s likely going to be a mix of players, but Trimble was such a strong player and end-of-game presence that he willed the Terps to a lot of wins the last three years.
BSL: It’s often said players progress the most between their Freshman and Sophomore years. With Jackson back, many will expect him and Huerter to compete for a place on one of (1st, 2nd, or 3rd) All Big-Ten teams. What parts of their respective games do you believe have to develop the most?
DeCourcy: I think it’s just consistency of performance — the ability to be really good possession to possession, game to game. Justin went from consecutive 20-point performances midway through the Big Ten to closing with seven single-figure efforts in his final 10 league games. Kevin played lots of minutes but never was able to consistently impact games at the offensive end. He had good nights; he had off nights. Some of that was the heavy reliance on Melo, I suspect. With a more conventional lineup, the expectations and opportunities for each might be more consistent, as well.
Phillips: For Jackson, I want to see him become a defensive force who is averaging more than a full steal and block per game (after coming close last season). Jackson is way too gifted athletically to not be one of the Big Ten’s better multi-positional defenders and I want to see him make more impact plays on defense this season. Showing that he can be a “three-and-d” wing would also certainly help Jackson’s pro stock heading into next offseason.For Huerter, he needs to develop a more well-rounded scoring package that can help keep defenses honest. Still too reliant on his perimeter jumper, if Huerter can improve off the bounce or continue to polish his mid-range game then it will open up his offense that much more.And both Jackson and Huerter need to be more prepared to finish the season on a stronger note. Both freshmen struggled with consistency at the end of the season, and both players should be better prepared for the rigors of a full college season as sophomores.
BSL: Another player looking to make that Freshman to Sophomore leap will be Cowan. Do you see Cowan as having the upside to become an upper-echelon starter within the Big Ten?
DeCourcy: To average 10 points and 4 assists while playing next to such a ball-dominant player — that represented a fantastic freshman season for Anthony. He’ll have far more responsibility now, which is both promising and challenging. I like his game and his toughness. It’ll help if he improves as a long-distance shooter. Every guard that wants to be a pro now has to spend a ton of time working on his shot. You can’t play at the next level without being able to shoot from deep. Anthony’s freshman year showed he can make a shot. The next step is to become a shooter.
Phillips: I think if Cowan improves his efficiency then he certainly has a chance to be one of the better lead guards in the Big Ten. Not many freshmen can come in and make an impact like Cowan did, but this year he’ll get increased attention with Trimble being gone. If Cowan upps his three-point percentage a bit and limits his turnovers, then he should be able to step in and replace Trimble with minimal issues.
BSL: Trimble and Brantley have departed. Morsell is arriving. Is PG depth a concern for you looking at this roster?
DeCourcy: Without having seen a ton of the recruits, I’d have to say yes. You’ve got four established wings, and none is going to even fake it as a backup point. So it’ll have to be someone young, presumably Morsell.
Phillips: I’d say it is a little bit. Not having a proven secondary ball handler on the bench can be an issue. But I think between Cowan and Huerter, there are enough playmakers on the Maryland roster where they should be fine as long as there are no injuries or heavy foul problems. Cowan should be able to handle the brunt of the lead guard responsibilities while Huerter is a bit underrated when it comes to playmaking and finding teammates. I’m fascinated to see how Maryland adapts its offense without Trimble and I’m particularly interested to see if Huerter gets more of a shot to initiate offense in ball screen scenarios.
BSL: After a strong shooting season as a Freshman, Nickens has had back-to-back disappointing years. 2015-16 was lost to injury for Wiley. ’16-’17 saw additional injuries, and a minimal presence for Wiley when he was available. Do you hold any remaining optimism for the duo?
DeCourcy: You never count out talented players. I really liked Dion in high school; I probably had him rated higher than anybody. I’m not certain how much the injury set him back, but I’d imagine it’s a fair amount because the Dion Wiley who played on the circuit in the summer of 2013 would have at least pushed Jackson and Huerter for time when they weren’t performing well last season. I certainly hope Dion will be better this season.
Nickens is a mystery. He shot far better as a freshman than he has in either of the past two seasons. His minutes are down, he was even worse inside the arc than outside it last year. There still is a role for him if he works for it.
Phillips: Not in particular. I’m really not sure what to make of these guys after the last two seasons. Nickens has always been a guy who needs confidence and ample perimeter shots to feel comfortable. I’m not sure he gets those looks this season.
Wiley was at least a respectable 37 percent from three-point range last season, so maybe he can salvage a good senior season? I’m hoping both of these guys play more like they did freshman year. If Nickens or Wiley returns to form then this could be a really fun perimeter group to watch play together.
BSL: Grad transfer Sean Obi has also battled injuries and missed a lot of time (transferred from Rice to Duke after ’13-’14, sitting out the ’14-’15 season due to transfer rules. That was followed by playing in 10 games in ’15-’16, and missing the entire ’16-’17 season.). Can he be looked at as anything but rotational depth?
DeCourcy: All I’ve seen of Obi is from Duke practice, and he didn’t make much of an impression. You can’t say he doesn’t have an opportunity now, especially with Ceko coming off the injury. I’m a little surprised if Obi really wanted to play this year he didn’t choose a less formidable school in a less formidable league.
Phillips: It’s hard to look at Obi being much of a factor for next season. Duke struggled mightily with its big men at times the past two seasons and still wouldn’t turn to Obi even in moments of complete desperation. I think that says a lot about how prepared Obi was for high-level basketball. It just doesn’t seem like his production in CUSA and at Rice ever translated to higher levels.
BSL: Based on what exists roster wise, what would be your starting 5?
DeCourcy: Without seeing Morsell but knowing what his reputation was in high school, I’m going to wild-guess that he starts at shooting guard with Cowan at the point, Huerter at small forward, Jackson as a perimeter-based power forward and Bender at center. It could be Cekovsky if he’s ready to go at the start. I think Justin will be much better as a 4-man this year than last if Maryland can find someone to fill the spot on the perimeter.
Phillips: Cowan, Wiley, Huerter, Jackson and Cekovsky would be my starting five with Nickens coming off the bench as a scorer. I prefer the thought of Jackson at the four and allowing his athleticism and floor-spacing to be a matchup issue on most nights.
BSL: Under Coach Turgeon, MD Basketball has again found their footing. They’ve made the tournament in 3 successive seasons. They’ve gone 38-16 in Big Ten Regular Season play the last 3 years. He’s stacking quality classes on the recruiting trail. He’s been a Missouri Valley COY, a 2x COY in the Big 12, and a COY in the Big Ten. Despite what he’s achieved in his career, and so far at College Park; his local critics are rising. Do you see him as a Top 25 National Coach?
DeCourcy: People are always criticizing the coach. It gets old. I imagine more so for them than for me, although their paychecks offer a cushion. Turg has done a really good job at Maryland. He came into a situation that was less than ideal, then had to deal with a switch in conferences and almost immediately started making tournaments. Elite coaches such as Bob Huggins and Jamie Dixon struggled to manage their programs’ league shifts. Three consecutive tournaments is really good. Look around the neighborhood. Georgetown would love to have made the last three tournaments. I’m sure the program isn’t exactly where Mark wants it to be. But it’s in far better shape than when he arrived. That’s inarguable.
Phillips: If Mark Turgeon isn’t a top-25 national coach, then he’s pretty darn close. I’ve been dumb enough to list Turgeon on the hot seat for NBC before and it came back to bite me. I think it’s really impressive that Turgeon has made three straight NCAA tournaments with three rotations that were all very different. Obviously, Melo Trimble was a constant during that run, but Turgeon did a great job rebuilding on the fly with freshmen, transfers and graduate transfers the last few years.
In this modern era of college basketball, roster turnover is going to continue to be something you have to account for on a yearly basis. So to have a head coach, like Turgeon, who can win with different rosters every year is something that maybe some fans don’t appreciate as much as they should. I’m interested to see a Turgeon team at Maryland that has two-to-three years of continuity as far as a rotation is concerned.
Great programs expect to put players in the pros early, and Maryland is no different, but they’ve had an excessive amount of roster turnover the last three years. That should hopefully stabilize more over time.
BSL: There are multiple ways to play the game and build a team. Personally, I’d like to see MD push the ball more. It seems to me that Coach Turgeon’s teams play at a significantly more deliberate pace vs. what existed under Coach Williams. By the eye test (which admittedly could easily be flawed, and is certainly biased) it appears Turgeon’s teams have had less athleticism. I’d also like to see more offense created from defense (Turgeon’s teams do not turn over the opposition).
Are these fair or flawed critiques? When you view MD, what do you consistently seeing MD doing right under Coach Turgeon? What do you think should be a focal point for improvement?
DeCourcy: It’s certainly not inaccurate to say the Terps don’t play fast. Those three tournament teams all ranked lower than 190th in tempo. That’s playing slow. When Wichita State made the Sweet 16 in 2006, though, the Shockers were 276th. When he had DeAndre Jordan at A&M, were 286th. This is pretty much who Mark is as a coach. I suppose it’s possible to change, but it doesn’t seem likely, and it’s possible trying to turn up the pace would make him less comfortable, push him away from his strength.
I think to get better Maryland needs more good players, obviously, and needs to play with greater toughness. That could come with this team maturing a bit. I didn’t think the 2016 team, as successful as it was, was connected enough to play with a great deal of team toughness. And last year’s group was too young. These guys can improve in that regard because they’ve had a year of playing together.
Phillips: Since joining the Big Ten three seasons ago, Turgeon and Maryland have been even slower than they were during the three years they were in the ACC. I think there is some fair criticism to how slow Maryland’s offense can be — especially given the talent that they can have on the floor. But, again, Turgeon also hasn’t had a lot of continuity between teams. Maybe he hasn’t had time to implement advanced movements or sets that could open up more for the offense. And, let’s be honest, Melo Trimble could be very methodical with the ball in his hands, especially late in close games.
With no Melo and more pieces returning from last season, I’m interested to see if Maryland pushes the pace a bit more this season. They have some quality transition players like Jackson who are nearly impossible to stop with a full head of steam.
I would like to see Maryland try to be more aggressive on defense and force more turnovers, but Turgeon has traditionally played a more laid back approach on defense.
BSL: In a world where every Big Ten job became open tomorrow, where would MD place on the hierarchy of those openings?
DeCourcy: Behind Indiana and Ohio State, and possibly Michigan. If they built a practice gym they maybe could climb past the two football powers.
Phillips: I’d say Maryland is safely in the top half of the Big Ten jobs hierarchy for men’s basketball. I don’t want to give a firm number because this sort of thing is very fluid. But Maryland has a tremendous basketball legacy, a great fanbase, quality facilities and a location that enables them to recruit very strong locally. Not a lot of Big Ten programs can match all of those traits.
BSL: With Jackson returning, what’s the ceiling for the roster?
DeCourcy: Making it back to the tournament, probably as a middle-of-the-field seed, then trying to pull an upset or two and getting to the Sweet 16.
Phillips: I think the ceiling is pretty high for this Maryland team. This is a strange year for college basketball in that there aren’t many juggernauts and there is no clear national title favorite. While Michigan State is the concensus Big Ten favorite with Miles Bridges and most of its roster returning, Maryland is certainly in the mix in the group right behind the Spartans, especially if the sophomores show growth and others like Nickens and Wiley can improve.