Terps Basketball 2017-18: Reviewing The First Seven Games; And Looking Ahead
We are seven games into a front-loaded schedule for the Maryland Terrapins and the games have been coming fast and furious for the past two weeks plus. Currently sitting at 6-1 the early results have shown us a bit of a mixed bag. There is plenty to be very concerned with and perhaps even more to be excited about.
I am writing this in between a disappointing third place finish in the Emerald Coast Classic and a nationally televised (its way better on radio) opportunity at Syracuse tomorrow night. They have played two of five games in what can only be seen as a directional five game stretch that includes two all-important Big Ten games next weekend. We will get to those games shortly but we have to figure out where we’ve been to get a grasp on where we need to be.
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When the Terps suffered that stunning loss in Florida to Saint Bonaventure they gave away the only game of these five that they pretty much had to win. That the loss wounds the pride and hurts you in the computer is undeniable but what is more important is the way it was lost and it’s hard to pick the most depressing part of it out. The Bonnies did not make a three all night and the Terps were up 8 with 6 minutes left and up by 4 with two minutes left. Much has been made of the early season struggles with turnovers, and rightfully so. To turn the ball over 20+ times against any team that rarely picks you up full court is almost inconceivable with this level of skill. Yet the most disappointing thing to me was that many of those turnovers were loose balls to begin with that were grabbed by a St. Bonaventure team that appeared hungrier and more into the effort portion of the contest. The Terps lost in almost every effort category for the night and THAT is unforgivable.
To bounce back against New Mexico the next night in Florida felt right. It’s what good programs do. St. Bonaventure represented a bad loss in a long season. Learn from it and move on. After the Bonnies game I found it difficult to sleep (old habits die hard). I got up and read a bit and saw some of the posts on message boards and social media. I’ll plead guilty to being from a different generation from most of the posters (I think) but I found myself loving the passion and questioning the loyalty. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions…I applaud and appreciate that. Some just seemed incredibly personal. Honestly, some of the harshest posts had come quite late after a Friday night game and I thought they were College basketball‘s version of drunk dialing (I said what to you last night?). In fact, there was a thread on one of the best run message boards in the country- Inside Maryland Sports- that was titled “say drunken shit”. Only in this version of it nobody knows your name and number so there isn’t much in the way of accountability. But it’s all good….
Some of the most direct- and valid- criticisms have surrounded the team’s ability to execute and score against zone defenses. That issue becomes even more critical given the 40 minutes of 2-3 zone the Terps will see in Syracuse on Monday night. I think the offensive concepts are solid enough that they are certain to get better at playing against zones as the season goes on. They better. I don’t think it’s overly simplistic to say that the ultimate remedy for any defense is to make shots. The Terps opened up 1-15 from three against Saint Bonaventure. Plenty of those were uncontested. Simply making open shots will mitigate some of the other struggles you are having (i.e. turnovers). One of the things that may hamper their improvement against zones is the simple fact that, being a predominately man to man team, the Terp players only really experience really good zone looks in games. That might actually change…the Terps played some zone in a couple of situations in Florida and, given their size and length, it was an impressive success. We may see more of that.
If you are going to criticize Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon for things like offensive execution versus zones then you probably owe some props for what he and his team are doing defensively and on the backboards. Only one team has shot over 40% against the Terps this season (Bucknell) and they have bludgeoned opponents on the backboards with a differential of 16+. He coaches those areas as well as the offense. Generally speaking, those things (defense and rebounding) travel…and will sustain you when things like three point shooting goes sideways.
The appraisal of Terp personnel is a little bit like the team appraisal – a mixed bag. When I did a season preview piece a few weeks back in this space I think I suggested that Anthony Cowan Jr would be the leading scorer and that Darryl Morsell would be the biggest surprise. Those things came to fruition. When I wrote that piece I had only seen freshman Bruno Fernando at one practice. He was hurt pretty much the rest of the fall. My guess is that we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg right now with him and that alone is incredibly exciting. He needs to avoid the ticky-tack whistles he seems to get but has a great knack for blocking shots and defensive positioning without fouling. Oh, and his offense seems to get better by the possession. Enjoy it while you can see it!
Regarding the sophomore core…Cowan has been an offensive force at point and had a terrific weekend in Florida defensively against a couple of quality point guards. He needs to turn the ball over less and he knows it. Kevin Huerter needs to hunt more shots. He is unselfish to a fault and can give this team a different element when looking to get those shots. Justin Jackson has been frustratingly enigmatic. You have to give him credit for continuing to rebound as he has (particularly defensively) but he has looked lost offensively for much of the first three weeks. I know he wants to play on the wing and I totally understand why. Yet this team is better off when the two freshmen and three sophomores are on the floor and that puts JJ at the power forward spot. He’ll still get his opportunities there – probably even more than his share of them. The one thing that each of the sophomore class has in common is that they have to stop turning it over at the pace we are seeing right now.
You have to really like what senior center Michal Cekovsky is giving his team right now. He is healthy and playing with confidence on both ends. He offers a nice contrast to Bruno that opponents have to account for. The same holds true for redshirt junior Dion Wiley. He is healthy and playing with confidence. His stat line of 9 points (3/3 shooting, 4 assists and 3 rebounds) against New Mexico is a stat line I would take from him 24/7. The rest of the Terp rotation – Sean Obi, Iven Bender and Jared Nickens- just has to stay ready. If you decide that the team is better with Jackson at the four spot then that means limited minutes to split at the 5 for Obi or Bender given that Bruno and Ceko will get their share. The same is true on the wing. If Morsell gets over his hamstring issue and gets healthy then the opportunities for Nickens might be minimal. Then again, things happen during the course of the season you could never have predicted.
The week ahead offers a tremendous opportunity. First up are the Orange at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse. They may not offer up a Derrick Coleman or Pearl Washington (God rest his soul) on the current roster but they’d be a great win on the road against an ACC team that does not lose much in its own building.
On the other side of that are the biggest games of the fall against Purdue at home and Illinois on the road. The way the conference works now, with each team playing two games that first weekend in
December; it means that –if you handle your business- you could be in first place in the conference for a full month. Conversely, one bad weekend can pretty much ruin your Christmas.