COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Maryland’s older players know how special basketball in Madison Square Garden is to the game. The hope is the younger Terrapins aren’t daunted by the big stage Dec. 8 when No. 2 Maryland get Connecticut there in a prime-time showdown on ESPN.
“Just going back and thinking about the number of great basketball players and great games that have been in the ‘Mecca of Basketball,’ as they call it,” said Rasheed Sulaimon, who has played their before but not as a Terrapin. “Everybody knows of Madison Square Garden. You know the aura it brings,”
Robert Carter remembers watching games at MSG on television. Lots of games. “This is my first time actually playing in the Garden, so I’m very excited,” said Carter, coming off his best game as a Terp with 20 points in Friday’s win over St. Francis. “I watched a lot of NBA basketball growing up. Kobe (Bryant) performances, (Stephen) Curry two years ago, an amazing performance there. Reggie Miller and Spike Lee, I got so many memories. Kemba Walker in the Big East (Tournament). Everybody is going to be excited to play there.”
And basketball-lifer and Maryland coach Mark Turgeon thinks these attitudes are a good thing. “What I’m realizing with this team is they love challenges. This is a great challenge for us.”
The Terrapins (7-1) have split their two previous biggest challenges this year, beating Georgetown 75-71 at home, and falling 89-81 at North Carolina before a hostile crowd. The common thread was a slow start in both games.
“We just have to come out more focused, playing defense,” said Carter. “We can’t give up early baskets and let people get a lead on us, and have to battle back. I think we took a step forward in the St. Francis game of picking up our intensity.”
Carter was a key figure on both ends as the Terrapins roared out to a 13-3 lead against overmatched St. Francis en route to a 96-55 victory. It was arguably Maryland’s best showing of the season, albeit against an overmatched foe.
“We have a long ways to go, but we showed strides the other night,” said Turgeon. “Awareness defensively, I know it wasn’t a great team, but we were still much better defensively than we had been so it’s still a great sign that we’re heading in the right direction.”
Sulaimon doesn’t’ think the big stage or the big opponent will deter the Terrapins. “I had a little bit of jitters (playing at MSG the first time), but what we do is play basketball. Once the tip-off goes off, any jitters you might have had or anything like that go away and you just get into your zone competing and trying to win the game. I don’t think it will be any different.”
What’s different is how good Connecticut (5-2) is. UConn (5-2) is coming off an 82-49 win over Sacred Heart that snapped a tough two-game losing streak, the Huskies falling to Syracuse 79-76 and No. 10 Gonzaga 73-70, those two games in a Bahamas Tournament. In 6-4 junior Rodney Purvis and versatile 6-7 sophomore Daniel Hamilton, the Huskies have some big-time talent, too.
“They’re really deep, they play 11 guys,” said Turgeon. “They’re deeper than we are. Their length scares you. The Hamilton kid is special. He plays the three for them, but he’s like a point guard. He’s great on the break. Their transition offense worries you probably more than anything, then there’s the ability to penetrate the basketball. Those are the two things we’ve talked about a lot.”
Maryland wasn’t very good, particularly defensively against North Carolina’s light speed transition game. That aspect has to improve Dec. 8 in New York. Another point of emphasis recently has been helping Jake Layman get going. He had 16 points on 5-of-7 shooting against St. Francis, hitting 4-of-6 behind the arc, to register his first double-digit scoring game in four outings.
“We ran a play for Jake early and he made a good decision,” said Turgeon. “He went in and shot a layup instead of taking a jump shot to start the St. Francis game, and that got him going. He hit a couple of threes, which was good to see. But our whole team was looking for him also, because I told the team we needed to get Jake going, which we did. Now it’s up to him to keep himself in that groove.
“The good thing for us is we score 81 at North Carolina, (Jake) doesn’t score a lot. The other night, we didn’t need Melo (Trimble) and Rasheed and we got to 96. We have a lot of good players. We just want guys to be more consistent.”
Sulaimon, like a special forces agent dissecting a bomb in the form of a negative question about Layman’s shooting, spelled it out. “Jake’s a veteran. He has been around the block. Honestly, in my opinion, I don’t think he was struggling. He missed a couple of shots here and there but I think he still impacted the game in various other ways like a veteran player who is going through a shooting slump as they call it, does. He’s fine. We talked. Good shooters are going to keep shooting the ball and their percentages will (go up).”
“I think we’ve got him more open looks this year,” said Turgeon of Layman. “Last year we couldn’t get him an open look late in the season, and we’ve been able to do that. One is we’ve got a lot of good players around him and we are able to space the floor. It’s just him getting comfortable again. He’s putting too much pressure on himself, and he just needs to relax. And everyone needs to quit talking about it. Let the kid be a kid. I’m not worried at all.
The Terrapins, after the effort at North Carolina (despite the turnovers and lapses on defense), then the mature pounding put on the Red Flash Friday, could be ready for a signature effort come 9 p.m., or so Dec. 8.
“We just have to focus on UConn,” said Carter. “We take it one game at a time, focus on that game and getting another victory because it’s a long season. Our offense will take care of itself. We have to focus on defense.”
Carter said the greatest strides the team has made in recent weeks have been on defense as the team continues to get to know one another better. Carter sat out last year, chomping at the bit to play. Fellow redshirt Ivan Bender also sat out and got to sit some more this season when the NCAA didn’t allow the 6-9 native of Bosnia and Herzegovina to play in the first six games because of his involvement with a European club team.
When Bender finally got his chance Friday, he made the most of it, throwing his 230-pound body around against St. Francis to the tune of five points and six rebounds in just four minutes in his first collegiate action.
“It was amazing,” smiled Carter. “We’ve got a lot of talent and (Bender) is going up against us every day and getting better. It’s hard for coach to sub. (Bender) could play for a lot of other teams but we’ve already got four big men. I’ve never been on a team where we’ve subbed four big men, but (Turgeon) is doing a good job. You see (Bender’s) potential for the future.”
Turgeon pointed out that those six rebounds averaged over 40 minutes would be 60 per game, and while the Terps don’t necessarily need that from the big freshman, he’s ready for whatever role may come his way.
“I felt so good, I was on the court for the first time in 2 ½ years to play,” said Bender. “I was just so happy and excited. In the beginning I was a little nervous but then playing I was more comfortable, especially after the dunk”
Bender said his teammates were happy for him, too, and they have continued to push him in practice and encourage him.
“I am not the coach but I feel I can play so everything is on Coach,” Bender said when asked if he could get more playing time. “Every time I will do my best and what coach asks me to do. Every day is tough in practice because I used to play with maybe one guy next to me, but now I have four really good guys next to me so every day is tough. If you’re not 100 percent in practice, you’ll look bad and Coach will be mad at you.”
Turgeon was thrilled for Bender, too, the other night. But there probably aren’t enough minutes to go around with Carter and Diamond Stone and Damonte Dodd and Michal Cekovsky already entrenched. Bender showed a physical style, though that translates well in the Big Ten. He hit his free throws and he rebounded with authority. His time will come but likely not Dec. 8 in Madison Square Garden.
Instead look for Trimble and Sulaimon to again pick up more of the scoring load, and if Carter & Co., take care of business inside, this game could be a showcase for Maryland which has that big stage and a big chance to make a case for moving up in the rankings.
Turgeon wants this game to improve the Terrapins’ transition play and he wants a win, something that could pay dividends in a season that has yet to take on a recognizable shape nationally.
“We practice against good players every day and you prepare every day for the UConns of the world and our Big Ten schedule that lies ahead,” Turgeon said. “I don’t need a big motivational speech for this game. Our guys will be ready. I just need to get them x-and-o ready, which I think we’re doing. There are a lot of really great teams in college basketball, probably more than last year, just no Kentucky running around. UConn is one of those teams.”
And so is Maryland. Game on.
The meeting with UConn is part of the Jimmy V Classic, began in 1995 as a way to raise money for the V Foundation for Cancer Research. The V Foundation, founded in 1993 by the late Jim Valvano, the legendary coach and ESPN commentator, has raised more than $150 million for cancer research.
Following the Connecticut contest in this event, the Terrapins host Maryland Eastern Shore Saturday at 4:15, then play Princeton in Baltimore, on Dec. 19. The team then has an eight-day break between games, hosting Marshall Dec. 27, then opening Big Ten play with a Dec. 30 showdown at home against Penn State.