The Maryland men’s basketball team spent less than 72 hours in Cancun, Mexico, for the pre-Thanksgiving Cancun Challenge, but head coach Mark Turgeon said it was well worth the 5.5-hour flight. The Terps weren’t always perfect during their two-game, two-day stint, but they emerged 2-0 and ran their record to 5-0 on the season.
“It was really a fast trip. It wasn’t like we were able to do a lot of things off the court together,” said Turgeon on the eve of his team’s Nov. 28 7:30 p.m. home bout against Cleveland State. “We were pretty self-contained, but I do think we grew tremendously as a basketball team down there. I do think our chemistry did get better. It was a really good trip for us. We got out of it what we wanted to get out of it: We won the championship and became a better basketball team.”
The Terps entered the tournament with several questions surrounding the squad, despite their 3-0 record. Before departing, Turgeon acknowledged that he wanted UMD to become more efficient offensively; improve its overall defense and rebounding; and spark the confidence of individuals such as point guard Jaylen Brantley and center Damonte Dodd.
Maryland still needs to make strides in all of the above, but, for the most part, the Terps progressed in each area. Maryland ended up shooting 55 percent from the field during the two games, generating 27 total assists. The Terps held their foes to 37 percent shooting, out-rebounded the Redbirds and Rams by a combined 64-58, and forced 31 turnovers, including 19 steals.
Turgeon was content with their performance, although he was particularly encouraged by the offense. He noted how the Terps, during the Rhode Island bout, moved the ball around; worked inside and out; ran well in transition; and identified mismatches in the Rams’ defense.
“We got a lot better offensively down there,” Turgeon said. “I thought we played well against Illinois State; we just didn’t make shots. It’s hard when you have five or six illegal screens a game, but I do think we’re getting better [offensively]. It just takes time. We had good inside-out presence in both games. It’s coming together. I’m pleased. We’re nowhere near as good as we’re going to be, but we’re heading in the right direction.”
Meanwhile, both Brantley and Dodd began emerging from their early-season shells. Dodd dropped in 13 points, pulled down three rebounds and had three blocks against Illinois State; Brantley had three assists and three boards against Rhode Island. Granted, Dodd reverted to form during the Rams’ game, and Brantley has to continue working on his outside shooting and defense, but both took a step forward.
Brantley’s latest outing, in particular, resonated post-Cancun. Against Rhode Island, the backup point guard displayed improved court vision, passed the ball with conviction and made smart basketball decisions (i.e. he didn’t try to do too much or jack up contested threes). Of course, he’s still yet to knock down a jump shot.
“It’s huge for us for [Brantley] to continue to grow and get more comfortable. We need him to grow defensively. But it was good to see the three assists and no turnovers. It’s a step in the right direction,” Turgeon said. “We gave him a lot of playing time [in Cancun], and it was good to see. It’s added depth, and it will help us as the season goes on.
“[But] I think he’s getting used to everything, and it’s going to take time. He is a big-time shooter. I didn’t particularly like his two drives, trying to score in with the big guys. But it’s going to take time with Jaylen. He can really shoot it, and he can help us stretch the defense even more. …. Hopefully he’ll become more comfortable going into Big Ten season and really help the squad [shooting the ball].”
While Turgeon was mostly complimentary during his Nov. 28 teleconference, he acknowledged UMD is far from a refined product. Maryland put together its most complete 40 minutes all year against the Rams, but the headman is aware success can be fleeting. Can the Terps remain consistent and continue playing at a high level moving forward?
Moreover, Turgeon said the group’s 3-point shooting and “secondary defense” need to pick up as November moves into December.
“The first game [against Illinois State] we missed a lot of open [threes], but we are moving the ball better, and we have better spacing,” Turgeon said. “Eventually we’re going to start making them, and of course the last game [against Rhode Island] we made a bunch of shots, which made us look better.
“But we’re figuring it out. Everyone guards you a little different, but we’re getting used to each other, moving the ball better. We ran a little better, our transition offense was a little better this week than in the past. So it’s coming together.”
The Terps hit on 59 percent of their outside shots in the Rams game, but Maryland drew naught but iron in the Redbirds’ bout.
Forward Jake Layman, for his part, has had his share of outside-shooting struggles, and he connected on just 3-of-11 downtown attempts the last two games. Power forward Robert Carter, meanwhile, did can a huge triple Nov. 25, but he’s just 1-of-7 this season. That’s a bit surprising considering he entered UMD with a reputation for draining open treys.
“I think our guys know when to shoot. Jake didn’t shoot the ball well; it was a different environment down there in Cancun, playing in a ballroom, and those rims were really tight,” Turgeon said. “But our guys know what’s a good shot and what’s not a good shot. … We all think Robert [Carter] is going to make it when he shoots it, and we all think Jake is going to make it when he shoots. So hopefully they can continue to play more comfortable and shoot the ball well for us.”
As for the defense, Turgeon liked the results of his team’s man-to-man at the Cancun Challenge. But he said Maryland’s 1-3-1 press, a boon to UMD during the Rider comeback victory, needs to improve, as does the Terps’ 2-3 zone.
“I don’t think the press helped us against Illinois State. I thought they ran right through it, to be quite honest,” Turgeon said. “We’re not the fastest team. We’ve got some length, and I think if we use our length and our half-court trap like we did against Rider and Illinois State … that should help us.
“We’re still trying to find that secondary defense that will help us. We tried the 2-3 zone both games [in Cancun]; we’re still working on that. Our man-to-man defense is getting better, our team defense is getting better, our rebounding is getting better, so hopefully we’ll find our secondary defense. We’ll keep practicing it, playing it in a game, and hopefully it’ll help us in the future.”
Maryland fans may see more defensive experiments Nov. 28. While the Terps return home after Thanksgiving, Cleveland State (2-3) has to take a detour through College Park, Md., before heading back to Ohio. Like Maryland, the Vikings spent the holiday in Cancun, Mexico, although they were on the opposite side of the bracket. They topped Rider Nov. 24 before falling 77-66 to South Dakota State the next night.
Freshman guard Rob Edwards and junior guard Andre Yates were named to the All-Tournament team, the former totaling 24 points; six boards; three assists and three steals in two games; and the latter putting up a 23-six-and-five line. Junior forward Demonte Flanningan didn’t make the all-Cancun squad, but he’s probably the Vikings’ most potent all-around threat at 10.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.
In general, Cleveland State has struggled offensively, shooting just 37 percent from the floor and 25 percent from distance, while turning the ball over at a dizzying rate. The Vikings do play solid defense, however, forcing turnovers on 26 percent of opponents’ possessions.
“I was lucky enough to see [Cleveland State] twice in person down in Cancun. I saw them maybe a combined 30 minutes live,” Turgeon said. “They’re the hardest playing team we’ve played against, and they’re extremely well coached.”
The Terps undoubtedly would like to continue building momentum, especially since nationally-touted North Carolina looms Dec. 1 in Chapel Hill, N.C. The Tar Heels will represent UMD’s first true test against a ranked opponent, but if this year’s proven anything, it’s any Goliath can be slain when they underestimate a mid-major.
So first thing’s first: Nov. 28 against Cleveland State.
“They will press us, they will zone us, they will play man-to-man, but most importantly they play hard,” Turgeon said. “So we have to match that [Nov. 28].”