For the last two seasons, Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon has signed his Terps up for a Thanksgiving holiday getaway. And for two years running, UMD has remained unscathed, first sweeping through the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands before going 2-0 in the CBE Hall of Fame Classic last year in Kansas City, Mo.
This year, the Terps (3-0) will leave the country once again in hopes of continuing that pre-Turkey Day trend.
“We want it [the trend to] continue,” Turgeon said. “We’re going to have to go down there and play better than we have. But we’re excited.”
Down there, of course, is this year’s version of paradise -- Cancun. Turgeon and the Terps are currently in Mexico for the Cancun Challenge, ready for an initial bout against Illinois State Nov. 24 at 8:30 p.m. If they down the Redbirds (2-2) of the Missouri Valley Conference, UMD will take on either Rhode Island or TCU Nov. 25.
“This is great for us. I like these trips,” Turgeon said. “We get away, we bond and it’s a great trip. On the court we’ll concentrate; off the court we’ll have fun together. I think this is really the perfect time for it.”
In other words, Turgeon’s hoping the latest getaway spurs the Terps to their potential. The team moved up to No. 2 in the polls this week, despite sneaking by two teams they trumped in both overall talent and depth: Georgetown and Rider. The season’s young, but Maryland has had some issues defeating zone defenses, connecting from beyond the arc (23 percent against Rider) and limiting high-percentage shots (Georgetown shot 48 percent from the field, Rider 47 percent). Not to mention the Terps have come out sluggish in back-to-back games before turning on the jets in the second half.
“We just need to play better,” Turgeon said. “I just need to do a better job getting them ready to play. I had plenty of time to do it, and I just didn’t have them ready.”
In addition to overall team goals, UMD’s headman is undoubtedly hoping a couple individuals can jumpstart their seasons after early-year struggles.
Freshman big man Diamond Stone showed signs of busting out with a 12-point, five-rebound effort against Rider, helping ignite Maryland’s 14-point comeback. But fellow paint presence Damonte Dodd has been lost at times rotating in. In 17 minutes a night, Dodd has produced a total of eight points and 10 boards in three games, while bobbling away a few passes he should have corralled.
Meanwhile, backup point guard Jaylen Brantley has not exactly inspired confidence, looking rather timid during limited action. But Brantley can’t be hidden on the bench; he became an essential component when the Terps lost guard Dion Wiley for the season. (Turgeon even admitted after the Georgetown game his Terps “missed Dion [Wiley].”)
If Brantley’s ball-handling and court awareness do not improve, Turgeon will be forced to continue shifting Rasheed Sulaimon over to point to spell starter Melo Trimble.
“[Brantley] is going to be fine,” Sulaimon said recently. “He’s only played a couple games at this level. Give him time. We have complete confidence in [Brantley], and he’s going to be a valuable piece for us. He just needs time.”
Perhaps Illinois State will provide the spark. The Redbirds have defeated Morehead State (by one) and Houston Baptist, but lost at home to South Dakota State and to San Diego State in California. Illinois State isn’t particularly strong in any one area, while it has struggled to connect from deep (29 percent) and from the foul line (55 percent).
Senior 6-foot-5 guard DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell is easily the squad’s most potent threat, averaging 17 points per game. Sophomore forward Deontae Hawkins, meanwhile, is putting in 10 points and grabbing five rebounds a night, and point guard Paris Lee averages 10 points and five assists.
Provided the Terps take care of business Nov. 24, they’ll likely face Rhode Island the next night. The Rams, expected to finish second in the Atlantic 10, are 2-1 and have demolished the likes of American and Cleveland State. They did lose to Valparaiso, but only by three, 58-55.
The Rams shoot 46 percent from the floor and 39 percent from range, while their defense forces almost 18 turnovers a game and limits foes to 19 percent from beyond the arc. They feature five starters averaging double-figures, led by sophomore guard Jared Terrell at 13,0, junior forward Hassan Martin at 12.0 and senior guard Four McGlynn at 11.3. Forward Kuran Iverson scores 10 a night and averages 5.3 rebounds.
But Rhode Island has its shortcomings as well, namely free-throw shooting (52 percent), turnovers (almost 17 a night) and interior defense (opponents shoot 52 percent). The Rams also did not shoot particularly well against a more formidable foe in Valpo (35 percent).
So, if all goes according to plan, the Terps will emerge from Cancun with two convincing victories, giving them confidence heading into Cleveland State at home Nov. 28 and eventually the much-anticipated North Carolina showdown in Chapel Hill, N.C., Dec. 1.
But, more important than the final scores, Turgeon and Co. would probably love to see an all-around uptick in both offensive and defensive execution -- and have the likes of Brantley and Dodd take a step forward.
If not, well, Maryland remains a talented bunch capable of going on a run at any time. Just as Georgetown and Rider, two squads that out-played the Terps for long stretches but still succumbed in the end.
“I think that’s what separates us from other teams,” Stone said recently. “We’re all great athletes, great players, and we all can just play as one.”