In Praise of Bruno Fernando
If it feels like the narrative of the Maryland basketball season has changed over the past few weeks, it has. In the seven plus weeks since Christmas the Terps have gone 10-3 and gone head to head against most of the rest of the Big Ten Conference heavyweights and have acquitted themselves just fine. They’ve defended their home court just as most good teams do and have won consistently on the road as most really good teams do.
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Now is the time to seize the chance. You can’t take an opportunity like this for granted.
Conventional wisdom told us early in the season that this team – with five freshmen and two sophomores in their eight man rotation- would probably be better in a year or two. All of that started to change when the Terps ground out a 7-2 January with three wins on the road. Then that conventional wisdom was completely tossed out the window after Maryland’s second half dismantling of 12th ranked Purdue this past Tuesday night at Xfinity Center.
All of a sudden this Maryland teams finds itself heading into Ann Arbor to face 6th ranked Michigan at 19-6 on the season with 10 conference wins already. Who would have thought that after the brutal loss at home to Seton Hall in December? To this point they have played with an edge – particularly on defense- that keeps them in virtually every game and makes them a nightmare to play against. They’ll need every bit of that edge to deal with a Michigan team coming off of a difficult loss on the road to Penn State but nobody should be surprised if the Terps play the Wolverines right down to the wire in that game.
Back to my point about the opportunity…Mark Turgeon and his staff have continually upgraded things on the recruiting side of things. Their early evaluations of players like Eric Ayala and Aaron Wiggins were spot on and those players have contributed in a huge way since the first minute of the season. They have three players signed for next season that are all impact guys to add to the young mix they have now. Even with all that Maryland could be far more talented –and deeper- in the years to come but they might not be this good.
Chemistry is a funny thing in sports. Sometimes it can be hard to describe and difficult to quantify but you know it when you see it. Through all of the fits and starts – tough losses to top five UVA and painful losses to Purdue and The Hall- this team has developed something special and Maryland fans have fallen in love again. That’s not to say that this team is perfect and headed to the final four. They still go through maddening droughts offensively and are prone to starting games slowly. Blemishes like those are a part of college hoops for every team. Going into their game at UVA Duke was shooting 31% from beyond the three point line. Every single team has their own demons to deal with. The Terps next two opponents – both on the road and both ranked- are no exception. Michigan was playing like the best team in the Nation in November but they’ve come back to earth in conference play. Iowa has been ranked most of the season and can light up a scoreboard but their defensive ambivalence has cost them some wins.
There are some great story lines to this Maryland season. The play of the freshmen has far exceeded expectations. Ayala plays like a 30 year old guy at the YMCA and has been remarkably consistent in all phases. Wiggins and Serrell Smith have been the instant offense guys off the bench that the Maryland staff envisioned when they recruited him. Ricky Lindo has to be one of the great August recruits of all time – and Turge has had a few of them. Add in Jalen Smith and his eye popping skill set and you have a freshman class for the ages. These are plug-and-play guys who were ready from day one and they’ve impressed at every turn.
Perhaps the single biggest reason those five freshmen have been allowed to grow with as little pressure as they have is because of one guy and his name is Bruno.
We all saw glimpses of how talented Bruno Fernando was last season. He became a fan favorite early on but struggled with an injury early on and then had issues with consistency and foul problems. I’m pretty sure most of Terp nation thought he was long gone when he went to the NBA combine last May. Not only did Bruno come back, he came back a completely different player.
It strikes me that when most people talk about ‘basketball IQ’ it is usually used in reference to a guard. You really don’t hear it applied much to big men in college hoops and I don’t think I’ve ever heard it applied to a 6’10” 250 pound chiseled Angolan. Dude is a problem! The fortunes of this team turned when they began running their offense through him in late December and he has been incredibly consistent ever since. He was always a great rebounder and shot blocker. Prior to this year his offensive arsenal was not particularly varied but he clearly worked his ass off on his footwork and his touch and his jumper. Now that offensive game demands double and triple teams and he is not only a willing passer, he seems to find the open man on every double down. Give me a list of the 20 year old college big men who have become such great passers in so little time……waiting….
If you ever engage Bruno in a talk about his role and what he sees when he has the ball in his hands you cannot help but be impressed. I’m not sure where he picked it up or when it kicked in but he sure talks like a student of the game.
Perhaps the one thing I like most about him is the same thing that has endeared him – and his teammates- to this fan base. He LOVES being a Maryland Terrapin. He answers the bell every night. I’m going to enjoy it while it lasts.
There is still a lot to figure out over the next few weeks. It seems like the team has been on the road forever (special thanks to the Big Ten for giving away our home game against Illinois) and there are two tough games ahead in Ann Arbor and Iowa City and then we get three of the last four at home leading into Chicago and the Big Ten tournament.
The arc of the season has been really impressive. You can’t take this momentum or this opportunity for granted.