After 29 games and the rigorous Big Ten tournament looming, Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon is trying to give his team as many brief reprieves as possible heading into the postseason. With three freshmen playing significant minutes, including the team’s floor general, point guard Melo Trimble, and two inexperienced bigs underneath, there’s concern mental and physical fatigue could settle in.
“Our game ended at 2 p.m. Saturday [Feb. 28], and we told [the players] to stay completely away until [March 2]. No shooting, no gym, nothing,” Turgeon said on his weekly teleconference March 2. “So hopefully that will help get us mentally fresher. We’ll go through some things mentally to try to get them ready for the game [against Rutgers March 3], but I expect our guys to be ready physically and mentally … for the game.”
So far, so good.
The No. 10 Terps suffered through one rather difficult stretch from Jan. 22-Feb. 8 where they went 2-3 and were trounced by the likes of Indiana, Ohio State and Iowa. But since then Maryland has regained its swagger, running off five wins in a row, including a signature triumph over No. 5 Wisconsin.
The Terps just took care of business on Senior Day as well, handling Michigan, 66-56, to run their record to 24-5 and 12-4 in the Big Ten.
“Our year has been a pleasant surprise,” Turgeon said. “We’re heading in the right direction. … It’s been a good move for us [to the Big Ten], and we’re looking forward to the future in the Big Ten.”
The immediate future is Turgeon’s primary concern, however, and next up for UMD is a trip to Piscataway, N.J., March 3 for a 7 p.m. game against Rutgers.
Heading into the rematch meeting, the Terps have seen senior Dez Wells come on as a leader, facilitator, scorer and defender. He scored 26 points, recorded seven rebounds and had zero turnovers against Wisconsin before putting up a 13 and six line versus Michigan.
“[Wells] knows how to post you up, he knows how to take you off isolations, he knows how to play in the pick-and-roll with the ball,” Rutgers coach Eddie Jordan said. “But just his ability to catch the ball where he wants it and get to where he wants to go on the floor. … Look, there’s a lot of kids that don’t have a great feel for the game, but he certainly does.
“He understands how to help his teammates and he understands leadership. He’s king of the court, man. I know Trimble can score, but Wells is the king of the court when he’s out there.”
That wasn’t meant to be a slight on the Big Ten Co-Freshman of the Week, Trimble, who continues to produce night in and night out. The freshman has scored at least 16 points in each of the past six outings, while he’s dropped five dimes in two of the last three bouts. His passing, in particular, has been impressive of late.
Plus freshman wing Jared Nickens is dialed in from deep once again, knocking down five of his last eight triples, including 3-of-5 against Michigan. On top of that, Nickens has been stepping up his game defensively and getting to the glass too.
“I just think [Nickens] is in the right spot more often than not [defensively],” Turgeon said. “We’ve stayed on these guys, and he’s gotten better -- his positioning is getting better and he’s gotten stronger. [Nickens] is using high length to be more successful and just getting after guys. And he’s rebounding for us too, which is a big plus for our team.”
But as Nickens has risen up, junior forward Jake Layman has seemingly taken a step back. Layman, who averages 13.2 points per game, has lost his stroke of late, shooting just 27 percent against Wisconsin (six points) and 36 percent against Michigan (10 points). He’s misfired on eights of his past 10 3-point attempts as well.
Perhaps more concerning is Layman, typically a solid rebounder, has a total of three boards the last two games.
“Hopefully he’s mentally tough enough to move on,” Turgeon said. “He should be fresh and ready to go. … He’s stayed healthy, he’s been in every practice, but we gave him the day off [March 1] to get fresh. He’s just got to be mentally tough enough to go out there, and that’s what he did towards the end of the [Michigan] game when he hit those two big shots. We have a lot of confidence in Jake moving forward.”
The Terps would certainly like Layman to revert to form, especially since Maryland can’t rely on its paint presences to consistently produce. Sophomore Damonte Dodd has disappeared for stretches, and while senior Evan Smotrycz has picked up his passing and rebounding, he's not one UMD can count on offensively.
And while senior Jon Graham dropped in six points and had four rebounds on Senior Day, he’s not someone who will score on a routine basis.
Freshman 7-footer Michal Cekovsky started to show signs as a rim protector and an occasional inside force against Wisconsin, but he went down with a pregame injury before the Wolverines’ bout.
Cekovsky is considered day-to-day, but will likely miss the Rutgers game.
“’Ceko’ had an MRI [Feb. 28], and everything looked good, which is great news. I’d say he’s day to day, but mostly unlikely [he’ll be playing against Rutgers],” Turgeon said. “He’s not supposed to practice [March 2]. I don’t know the exact injury, kind of like tendinitis, a little swelling in the area. But no structural damage… which is good news.”
The last time the Terps took on Rutgers, Jan. 14., in College Park, Md., the Scarlet Knights were coming off a rather shocking 67-62 victory against Wisconsin, RU’s only real signature win this season. Carrying that momentum into Maryland, Rutgers gave the Terps, who were struggling offensively at the time, a fight before falling, 73-65.
The Scarlet Knights caught fire from the floor, converting 45 percent of their field goals and 41 percent of their treys. Meanwhile, guard Myles Mack dropped in a game-high 19 points, while two others added 12 apiece.
“We were in a real good game with [Maryland] down there [in College Park], being competitive down to the last 3.5 minutes,” Jordan said. “But I don’t know what kind of advantage it is for us [March 3]. We’re home and it’s Senior Night, but [Maryland is] rolling.
“[The Terps] stretch you out, they stretch the floor, Melo is a terrific player, Wells is a good one-on-one player who can post you up. They have good size, they guard the rim, and they have solid shooters coming off the bench. Nickens hit three-of-four 3s against us when we were crowding the floor against Trimble and Wells, so he can get loose. You just can’t take all their weapons away. It’s a heck of a challenge for us to try to win this game [March 3]."
Since the first UMD contest, the Scarlet Knights haven’t won a single game, dropping a dozen in a row to fall to 10-19 overall and 2-3 in the Big Ten. They have played a couple teams tough, but fact is RU’s average margin of defeat since Jan. 14 is 15 points.
RU fell to Indiana by 30 at home, by 34 at Iowa, by 19 at home versus Ohio State and by 18 at Penn State, to point out a few of the more glaring losses. Most recently, however, RU hung with Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind., until fading late in a 92-85 defeat.
“Obviously we’re in a tough stretch here,” Jordan said. “Our kids have been really good in practices, but they have to be more efficient offensively and get back on defense. We’ve been pretty good recently, but our transition defense has been our Achilles’s Heel, and now we can’t turn the ball over to add onto that.”
The statistics certainly bear Jordan out, as Rutgers ranks among the bottom three Big Ten teams in almost every major category.
RU shoots just 39 percent from the floor, 30 percent from 3, and 65 percent from the line, which is why Rutgers averages only 59 points per game (last in the Big Ten). Defensively, the Scarlet Knights allow opponents to hit on 43 percent of their shots and score about 67 per. And it certainly doesn’t help matters that they typically are out-rebounded every night, and have turned the ball over 70 more times than they’ve handed out an assist.
The aforementioned Mack leads the squad at 13.8 points per game, forward Kadeem Jack is second at 12.8, and forward Junior Etou is RU’s top rebounder at 6.5 per.
“Every day is a new day; every day is a fresh day and a chance to get better,” Jordan said. “We look at this like it’s another day to do something wonderful against some great teams in the Big Ten.”
No. 10 Terps Rested, Ready For Home Stretch
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