Chris Knoche Previews Terps Basketball 2017-18
With the 2017-18 season just days away now for the Maryland Terrapins there are plenty of reasons for Terp fans to be optimistic heading into what appears to be a transitional season for the program. It is transitional only in the sense that they will move away from the often times larger-than-life presence of guard Melo Trimble to the more democratic concepts of balance and team play. That’s not to say that the results moving forward will be better. Maybe the results will be the same…it’s just that the team will have a different way of getting there.
What will not be transitional are the expectations. They remain the same. After three straight NCAA appearances, nothing short of that will suffice for the program and they understand that to a man. The schedule offers both competition (Butler, St. Bonaventure, TCU and Syracuse) and opportunities for player development (euphemism for guarantee games) in the early going so that this team should be ready for Big Ten play when it rolls around on 12/1 against a highly regarded Purdue team.
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For those that monitor college basketball this team should be fascinating to watch. Seriously, we all think we know these guys because many have been around for some time and even still-young sophomore class played huge minutes last season. Sure we know the names and the faces of most of guys on the team. What we have no clue about are there new roles and whether they will flourish or flounder.
And then there are the freshmen.
There can be no doubt the uptick in recruiting in the program. The Terps knew they needed to add talent and depth in recruiting with Trimble’s imminent departure and they did just that. We’ll start there.
In the handful of practices I’ve seen the two man freshman class of Bruno Fernando and Darryl Morsell has done nothing but impress. Fernando has been nursing a bad ankle of late but should be there when the season starts. He offers a rare combination of power and athleticism at his listed 6’10” (sure plays bigger). What will stand out to Maryland fans, I think, is his motor. Big men are wired differently. Most are not like the type A guys who play point guard. Maybe it’s the altitude…I have no clue. But Bruno is passionate and emotional and, well, just really invested. Add to that a remarkable set of tools physically and you get a complete game-changer. His teammate Morsell can really play. There are plenty of folks that saw him play last year as a stud high school player or this spring in the Capital Classic but they’ll see a different player this season. He still has the Swiss Army Knife skill set with all sorts of abilities but the Morsell they’ll see this season is a far more effective offensive player than they ever thought they’d see at this point. I think in most cases the biggest jump a player makes is between his freshman and sophomore seasons. In Morsell’s case the leap he has made in six months has been every bit as dramatic. Whichever assistant coach has been working on his jumper with him deserves a pay raise. While there is no question a primary role for Morsell might be as the designated defender for this team there should be little noticeable drop-off offensively when he’s on the floor. He’ll get major minutes.
The sophomore troika of Anthony Cowan, Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson are known quantities for the most part. When you take a macro look at their freshmen seasons you cannot help but be impressed. But the fact remains that each ended the season with a handful of things they had to improve. As point guard, Cowan needed to improve his shot and ability to finish in the lane. He also had to be more sturdy defensively against bigger guards closer to the basket. Huerter needed to learn to be far more assertive offensively while continuing to work on his impressive all-around game. Jackson needed consistency and had to become a far better finisher in traffic. And they all needed to take a page from the Trimble playbook and learn how to get the foul line more frequently.
Each of the three of them have looked good this fall but their true level of improvement cannot be measured until the competition is at its highest this winter. They’ll have some help in the backcourt with Morsell and veterans Jared Nickens and Dion Wiley.
Two years ago I was at a practice the day before Wiley tore his ACL and was lost for the year to a sweet 16 team. At that practice Wiley was arguably the best guard on the floor that day and was playing at a high level for a really talented team. Sadly we have not seen that guy since and the injury robbed him of his confidence and his playing time through last season. While it’s difficult to predict who might have a break-out year for the Terps this year, I’m rooting for this guy. This fall he has been terrific in practice and is often times the extra guard inserted when Jackson moves to the power forward spot and the Terps play small.
Jared Nickens will get his chances. He remains a lights-out shooter when he’s on. There are practices where he doesn’t miss and can find his shot at will. And then there are times when he’s nowhere to be found. He can also tend to freeze-up a bit at game time. Hopefully in his last go round as a senior he finds some flow and just lets it fly.
Assuming good health this team should have plenty of options inside. Michal Cekovsky and Ivan Bender have been steady in practice. Ceko appears to be fully recovered from a serious ankle injury last season and Bender continues to offer a great innate understanding of the game, even if he is a limited athletically. Burly grad-transfer Sean Obi looks like he will help the cause in stretches but really hasn’t played much in the last couple of seasons and looks a little rusty as a result. He is clearly a big X factor for a team that already has plenty of them. Redshirt Freshman Joshua Tomaic offers an intriguing possibility as a “stretch 4” but right now the freshman Fernando is the best interior player this team has regardless of whether they play big with him and Ceko or go small with him at the 5 and Jackson at the 4. His health and availability are an absolute imperative to the success of the club.
If I had to list the biggest keys and questions to this team’s success I would start with Cowan. Can he make the next step playing the most important position on the court? He works his tail off and plays hard to overcome some of the physical challenges he has. I will not be surprised if he is the leading scorer on this year’s team. Then there is Ceko. Can he play a full season? Head Coach Mark Turgeon is taking a different approach with him this fall and is trying to be more patient with him. Can the team get consistent play and contributions from vets Wiley and Nickens off the bench? They sure have been solid this fall. Can Morsell be the backup point guard? He looks like he can handle it but he hasn’t had to bring it up the floor in the last five minutes of a Big Ten game on the road.
Lastly…down one with five seconds left against Michigan State…who is going to make the play? For the last three years everybody in America knew who was going to try and make that play and he’s gone. This team will have plenty of candidates for that but none who have actually done it. Anything short of the NCAA tournament will be a disappointment for this group and this program. To get to that point, however, there are just a few questions to be answered.