Terps Are 5-0; Schedule Now Ratchets Up
That the Maryland Terrapins are off to a 5-0 start in the early stages of the 2018-19 college basketball cannot be a surprise to anyone. The schedule was intentionally soft in the early going in an effort to get the team’s young core meaningful minutes before some really meaningful games (from an RPI perspective) came about on the schedule.
And here they are!
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Over the next two weeks the Terps will play four games against NCAA tournament-caliber competition in a stretch that will give their fans some early-season evidence about how it might fare in a far-better-than-expected Big Ten conference. Three of the four teams that they face – Virginia, Penn State and Purdue – are currently ranked higher than Maryland is according to KenPom and the only one that is not – Marshall – returns its nine leading scorers from a team that upset Wichita State in the NCAA tournament last season. Each team is unique in and of itself and each offers huge challenges to Maryland.
Marshall will come into Xfinity Center this Friday undefeated at 4-0. They boast a veteran backcourt of Jon Elmore and CJ Burks that averages nearly 48 points between the two of them and both have really unique backstories to their respective basketball journeys. Elmore began his career at VMI as a player and then transferred out. When the Marshall staff first saw him play he was tearing up the intramural league as a regular full-time student at Marshall. Now he is averaging almost 25 points per game (on an average of nearly 10 three point attempts per game) and has NBA scouts showing up at games and practices.
Burks is one of those recruiting stories that underscores the notion that there are a lot of good players out there and sometimes all they need is an opportunity. He played high school ball in relative anonymity in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Even a local school – Division 2 Shepard – didn’t offer him a scholarship or aid. Marshall Coach Dan D’Antoni saw Burks play late in the recruiting process and gave the kid his lone Division 1 offer. Averaging 23 points per game in his first three games, Burks has more than made the most of his chance. They are the two best players on a veteran squad where each of the five starters can drive it or shoot it. In fact the starting five is 33 of 80 from behind the arc in their first three games. They’ll take more than 30 threes in the game on Friday and will shoot them from pretty much anywhere at any time. In a perfect Marshall-centric world they would like to win every game 98-90. This should be fun.
Top five Virginia will come to Xfinity next week as the polar opposite to Marshall. While they offer the same level of stellar guard play as Marshall does, Virginia will employ that sticky pack-line defense and be as efficient as possible on the offensive end. This will be an enormous test for the younger players on Maryland’s team and invaluable lessons will be learned. It should also be the first sellout of the season in College Park as well as an opportunity for this team to make a statement on a national stage. You never get enough of those.
Even more significant than Marshall and UVA are the early season conference games that loom the first week of December. Penn State is a team that appears to be very similar to the Terps in terms of talent levels and expectations. When two similar teams with the same aspirations meet like this in a conference opener it is incumbent upon the home team to take advantage of the opportunity and seize a W at home. That feels like a big game now. My guess is that it will be huge by the time it finally gets here on 12/1.
Purdue lost a lot of talent and size off of last year’s NCAA tournament team. They do, however, return all world guard Carsen Edwards and he is off to a fabulous start this season. I have to admit to not buying into a lot of the Edwards hype but he could be the best player in the country not wearing a Duke uniform right now. Throw in the fact that the Terps will travel to venerable Mackey Arena and it makes that game seem pretty daunting. When Maryland has visited Purdue before the team has always seemed to enjoy the atmosphere and the opportunity. I’ll have more on that game as it approaches.
When you start to preview upcoming games it can become difficult not to fixate on opposing teams and what they have. To that end I’d like to focus on the Terps and the challenges that they will certainly offer opponents.
Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon has been saying for three months that he is amazed by the improvement that Terp center Bruno Fernando has shown from last year to this year. On that note I had the chance to visit with the coaching staff of Hostra shortly after the Terps had beaten them in Xfinity last week. The first thing I heard from them was “we cannot believe how good Fernando is. He is WAY better than we thought he was”. Maryland is a far better team when he is on the floor and evidence of that was clearly seen in the home opener against Delaware where he picked up his third and fourth fouls early in the second half and his absence led to a furious Delaware comeback. He’s not just finishing more opportunities around the hoop right now he is also passing beautifully out of double teams on the offensive end and he is a terrific screen and roll defender and rim protector on the other end. His biggest improvement has simply come in the area of availability. He is sitting less due to silly fouls – an issue for much of last season. Sometimes a player’s greatest ability is his availability.
I really have liked the evolution in Anthony Cowan’s game in the early weeks of the season. He had a miserable opener against Delaware but seemed to turn things around in the second halves of the Navy and Hofstra games and played his best game of the season to date against Mount Saint Mary’s. He currently leads the team in scoring and I don’t see that changing but he’s also back to playing bulldog defense against opposing guards and attacking the basket in transition.
And then there is that group of freshmen that Turgeon has playing so many important minutes. Jalen Smith, Eric Ayala and Aaron Wiggins have each been impressive in their own ways and are only going to get better. Smith had an atrocious start to the game against The Mount and still ended with a double-double. Ayala is simply the best passer on the team and his old-school game has been a great addition in the early going. Wiggins has hit 13 of his last 26 three pointers. On a team that entered the game against The Mount shooting a collective 26% from three those numbers are like finding a glass of water in the desert.
While that Maryland freshman class gets a lot of ink the guess here is that the returning starters – Fernando, Cowan and sophomore Darryl Morsell – will probably be the guys that will determine the level of success for this team. Morsell can be maddening to watch from a purist’s perspective. He turns it over a bit and makes some questionable decisions from time to time but there is some element that he brings to the team that is much needed. He’s relentless and he’s tough. It’s a bit of the old Gary Williams notion that your 3-man has to be that hard-nosed glue guy that can make plays on both ends. Perhaps he’s becoming that guy. He’s only a handful of games into his sophomore season – still a work in progress. Yet he’s been in double figures in four of first five games and seems to be figuring things out in front of our eyes.
The fun starts Friday at Xfinity Center. Get there!
A fixture in the Washington sports scene since his days as a player and a coach, Chris Knoche has accumulated a diverse resume as a media presence in town for more than two decades. That resume has earned him opportunities on both national and local stages and made him a Washington DC staple on radio, television and in digital media.
He was an all-Metropolitan selection as a player at WT Woodson High School and played collegiately at the University of Colorado and American University. After serving stints at American – first as an assistant coach, then as the Head Coach from 1990-1997- he began working games as a Color Analyst for CBS/Westwood One, ESPN, Comcast Sportsnet and DirecTV. After the 1998 and 1999 seasons Chris was selected to do NCAA tournament work for Host Communications and CBS/Westwood One. In 1999 Chris began working as the Color Analyst for the University of Maryland broadcast network and enters his 20th season with the Terps this season.
During those twenty years Chris has appeared regularly on George Michael’s “Full Court Press” on the NBC affiliate in Washington as well as being a regular guest for the highly rated “Sports Reporters” show on ESPN 980 radio. He currently serves as host for the DC Basketball Coaches podcast along with former Maryland Head Coach Gary Williams and he has regularly written columns for comcastsportsnet.com and Baltimoresportsandlife.com.