What should the expectations be for Maryland?
With an exhibition game against Fayetteville State out of the way, the focus for Maryland has turned to a regular season slate that begins Tuesday night when Holy Cross visits the Xfinity Center. And with that comes the conversation — which has already been had by many — regarding expectations for the 2019-20 season. On paper this has the potential to be a team that challenges both within the Big Ten and nationally, with Bruno Fernando being the only major personnel loss from last season’s 23-win team. Anthony Cowan Jr. and Jalen Smith lead the way amongst the returnees, and freshman wing Donta Scott appears to have star potential if the preseason is any indication of what the future holds for him.
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When it’s all said and done, this could end up being the best team that Mark Turgeon has coached since he arrived in College Park. And that would include the 2015-16 squad, which began the season ranked third in the preseason polls that year. Led by point guard Melo Trimble and the front court trio of Robert Carter, Diamond Stone and Jake Layman, those Terps would be ranked as high as second nationally before reaching the Sweet 16. Yet while that group won 27 games, it felt at times as if they were leaving something on the table as Maryland was perceived to be a national title contender.
Bringing things back to this year’s group, what are “realistic” expectations for Maryland? To discuss this requires a look at Turgeon’s overall tenure in College Park, and what his teams have achieved.
He took over in a difficult spot, as Maryland had bid farewell to the great Gary Williams after a 19-14 season in 2010-11. Replacing a coach who is a face of the program as both a player and coach is never easy, especially if the new hire comes from the “outside.” And sure enough there were issues those first three seasons, with Maryland failing to reach the NCAA tournament in any of those years and having a 25-win season sandwiched in between two 17-win campaigns.
But the Terps began to turn a corner at this point, and the timing was good as the school was moving from the ACC to the Big Ten. Three straight seasons of at least 24 wins (and 12 conference wins), three straight NCAA tournament appearances but the furthest the team was able to advance was that aforementioned Sweet 16 appearance in 2016. And after missing out on the tournament in 2018 Maryland was back last season, beating Belmont before losing to LSU in a heartbreaker.
Given that history under Turgeon, with just one trip to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, what should the floor be for this year’s group? And what should the ceiling be?
The “ceiling” question is the easy one to answer here. If the young bigs can make positive strides throughout the season, with Smith emerging as a bonafide star and the Mitchell twins being consistently effective contributors, and the perimeter play can continue to progress, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that the Terps make a run to the Final Four in Atlanta (remember 2002?).
The “floor” question may be a bit more complicated, because of the program’s history in the Turgeon era and the variables at play. While the perimeter lacks for neither depth nor talent, there are some depth concerns in the paint. Smith is the known quantity in the front court, as he’s coming off of a season in which he averaged 11.7 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 0.9 assists per game while shooting better than 56% from the field. With the aforementioned Fernando now in the NBA, he’ll be asked to lead the way in the paint and there’s no question that he has the talent needed to do just that.
The question is who else steps up alongside Smith. The other forward spot may be one that depends upon the matchup on that particular night. Ricky Lindo Jr. started the exhibition game against Fayetteville State, but he only played 11 minutes. Donta Scott, a three who will likely see time at the four in Maryland’s “small” lineup, played 19 minutes and showed signs that he can have an impact immediately for the Terps. And Makhi Mitchell, who grabbed eight rebounds in his 16 minutes on the court, fits well next to Smith in a “big” lineup that would give Jalen a little more freedom to play away from the basket.
Chol Marial, who appears to be a candidate to redshirt this season, may be the “wild card” depending upon when he’s cleared for full contact. Makhel Mitchell, Joshua Tomaic and freshman Hakim Hart (who’s more of a wing than a big) appear to be on the outskirts of the rotation, but at the very least there are three more bodies that Maryland can call upon. How often Turgeon is willing to go small will certainly impact the available minutes for the bigs this season, because there’s enough talent on the perimeter to go this route. The hope is that all involved in the race for front court minutes play well enough — and stay healthy — to make the decisions difficult (in a good way) for the coaching staff.
Cowan is the unquestioned leader for this group, and as was the case last season he’ll be allowed to play both on and off the ball due to the presence of Eric Ayala. Darryl Morsell is one of the top defenders in the Big Ten, Aaron Wiggins a more than capable perimeter shooter and Serrel Smith Jr. will provide additional depth off the bench.
Maryland has the talent needed to play deep into March, and maybe even the first weekend of April, if things break in their favor. And to ensure this happens the usual bugaboo needs to be addressed. And that is the turnover count.
Last season the Terps turned the ball over an average of 12.9 times per game, a figure that ranked 12th in the Big Ten. What made matters even worse is the fact that this isn’t a team that, defensively, forces a lot of turnovers. Maryland was the lone team in the conference whose opponents averaged fewer than 10 turnovers per game (9.4), and as a result they finished dead last in the conference in turnover margin (minus-3.5). Of course there’s a difference between live-ball and dead-ball turnovers, and with Maryland not being a team that looks to force turnovers defensively that can put a little more stress on the team offensively.
Some have asked in previous seasons if Maryland should look to ramp things up defensively more often, and that is usually a question of personnel more than anything. With the number of perimeter players at Turgeon’s disposal, could this group be better equipped to do that, in turn forcing more odd-man situations in the open floor? That would certainly be worth discussing down the line.
So back to the “floor” question. It wouldn’t be unrealistic to expect this team to win a couple games and get to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. Of course there’s a lot of basketball to be played, and in March matchups are paramount. But Maryland has the pieces needed to live up to those expectations. The only thing left to do now is get the job done.
Raphielle’s been writing about college sports for more than a decade, making the move to college basketball alone in 2013. Beginning his work with the former website CollegeHoops.net in 2003, Raphielle spent 3 years writing for NBCSports.com beginning 2013, covering CBB and the Olympics. In 2016, Raphielle joined Heavy.com. If there’s a game on, there’s a strong likelihood that he’s watching it.