It’s been 16 years since the Terps trekked up the Parkway and played a game in the 410. The last time Maryland suited up in the Civic Center/Baltimore Arena/1st Mariner Arena/Royal Farms Arena (aka The Chicken Box), Juan Dixon was wearing shorts rather than a suit; Steve Blake was dropping dimes in College Park, Md., rather than Detroit, Mich.; and Lonny Baxter was ripping down rebounds stateside instead of hanging on to what’s left of his career in Venezuela.
During that game in 1999, the Terps ran roughshod over Iowa, 83-65, in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, Maryland’s ninth victory in 11 tries while in Baltimore. Indeed, Charm City’s treated the Terps well in the past, and, finally, they will end the drought and grace the City with their presence Dec. 19 against Princeton at 7 p.m.
“I go to Baltimore, and the fans over there make me feel great,” Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon said. “I go to a Ravens game or an Orioles game, and there’s tons of Maryland fans over there. This is for them, their town, and we’re coming over there and bringing the Terps to Baltimore. I think it’s great for our fans, and that’s really the main reason we’re going up.”
Never one to forego a recruiting opportunity, Turgeon will have the chance to showcase his program in front of a new crop of potential prospects. Many of those prospects wouldn’t ordinarily have the means/transportation to trek down to College Park.
“To me, this is more about the fans than anything else,” Turgeon said. “We recruit Baltimore and we’re going to continue to recruit Baltimore and hopefully have plenty of Baltimore players in our system in the future. But this is more about the fans.”
Those aficionados will be treated to the No. 6 team in the country and a Maryland squad that’s currently sitting third nationally in field-goal percentage. After a somewhat inauspicious start to the 2015-16 campaign, the Terps are converting at a 53-percent rate (only Indiana and St. Mary’s rank higher) and 39 percent from 3-point range (42nd nationally).
Damonte Dodd leads the way at 77 percent shooting, followed by Robert Carter (61 percent); Michal Cekovsky (57 percent); Diamond Stone (55 percent); Melo Trimble (53 percent); Rasheed Sulaimon (51 percent); Jake Layman (47 percent); and Jared Nickens (44 percent).
“Our shot selection is better, our execution is going to get better, and our assist-to-basket ratio is way up -- the best it’s been since I’ve been here, and that really helps,” Turgeon said. “And we’re really good around the basket. Sheed [Sulaimon] can make layups, Jake’s [Layman] good around the basket, Melo’s [Trimble] good around the basket, and our big guys score at a high clip around the basket.
“Our two-point percentage is really good, and that’s nice to have. A lot of people can’t finish around the rim, can’t finish over size, but we’re able to do that. And we just have dynamic players too, guys that are really talented offensively. That has a lot to do with it too.”
It follows that five of UMD’s dynamic players are scoring in double figures, and a sixth, Nickens, averages eight points a night. Trimble anchors the squad at almost 16 per game, Carter puts up 12.5 and Stone; Sulaimon; and Layman average right around 11.
“I think it’s because we have good players,” Turgeon quipped. “I just think each night a different guy can carry us, which is great. Our guys do a good job sharing the ball, and we’ve done a good job sharing the minutes too, and that helps guys put up points.”
Even so, there are concerns as Big Ten play nears. The team has inexplicably gotten off to slow starts in the majority of its game, while Turgeon’s harped on the defense/rebounding effort all season. Those two issues figure to be ironed out in time, but Maryland’s backcourt depth will be tested all year. When sophomore guard Dion Wiley went down with a knee injury in November, it sapped the Terps of another ball-handler, leaving them with just Trimble; Sulaimon; and backup point guard Jaylen Brantley to run the offense. And the latter pair have been rather suspect floor generals at times.
“I knew when Dion went down the impact it was going to have. No one else really thought it was going to have the impact it has had on our team. It is what it is,” Turgeon said. “We’re continue to try to build, do different things. We’re getting more comfortable with our rotation; I think it’s still developing a little bit.”
Another potential concern is the prolonged floor time for Trimble and Sulaimon, who both see about 31-32 minutes a game. No other Terp receives more than 29 minutes per game (Layman).
To compensate, Turgeon admitted he’s had to rest Trimble, Sulaimon and Layman during practice. He’s also pulled the point guard and shooting guard for longer stretches during games when the Terps are cruising, the outcome long decided.
“This week has been a good recovery week for us with finals going on,” Turgeon said. “Guys are getting their legs back under them.”
It’s been addressed numerous times before, but the key is Brantley. The junior-college transfer spells Trimble for about 5-7 minutes each night, an average Turgeon would like to see increase -- if Brantley can prove reliable.
The freshman has looked tentative at times, especially against Maryland’s more potent foes, but has taken strides of late. During Maryland’s last game against UMES, Brantley didn’t record an assist in seven minutes, but he moved the ball around and didn’t turn the ball over. Which, really, is all Turgeon’s asking for at this point (no pun intended).
“I feel great about [Brantley]. I probably had him more screwed up than anything, because I was making him learn two positions,” Turgeon said. “And lately he’s just practicing at point guard.”
Brantley’s also started to find his stoke after failing to record a single field goal during his first seven games. The backup guard put up three shots against UMES and canned his lone triple, just his second 3-pointer all year.
“[Brantley is] more of a point guard than he is a scorer. He’d much rather be a facilitator, but he can shoot it,” Turgeon said. “He’s been a reluctant shooter, and I think as he becomes more comfortable over his career he’ll become a huge weapon for us at the 3-point line.
“He’s a smart kid. He knows his role and he knows what he needs to do. But he’s still getting used to the speed of the game too. Once he gets used to everything and he’s open, he’s going to let it fly. And he’s going to make it; we’ve watched him do it in practice. He’s doing what’s best for the team right now, and that’s why I think so highly of Jaylen.
“And I think he’s much further along and much more comfortable than a month ago. I know the players and coaches are much more confident in him. I expect him, as the year goes on, to really help us.”
Brantley can take another step forward Dec. 19 against Princeton, the fourth most potent nonconference opponent on Maryland schedule. The “patsy portion” of the season ended with UMES; next up for the Terps is an Ivy League squad that coined an entire offensive system. Princeton (6-2) will bring its disciplined, motion-heavy, back-door cutting, off-the-ball picking, skip-passing attack to Baltimore Dec. 19.
“It’s a system you don’t see all the time,” Turgeon said. “Luckily for us we played Georgetown. [Princeton is] a little bit different, but it’s helped prepare us for this game. But we’re dialed in and we’re giving [the Terps] two full days to prepare for their system. Most teams you prepare for one day, but we’ll give them two full days.”
The Tigers are coming off a 77-72 victory against Liberty Dec. 17 and have wins against six mid-majors, while falling at St. Joseph’s and Stony Brook. They are 3-5 all-time against UMD, last facing Maryland Dec. 2, 2001, a 61-53 defeat.
This year’s version of Princeton puts up 77 points per game, shoots 43 percent from the field (33.6 percent from range, 67 percent from the foul line), and has a 1.27 assist-to-turnover ratio.
But while the Tigers’ offense can give unprepared foes fits, their defense has been the calling card thus far. Granted, Princeton hasn’t exactly played the second coming of the Golden State Warriors. But the Tigers have been impressive nonetheless, holding opponents to 66 points per game and 42 percent shooting, while they’ve out-boarded teams by about seven a night. They’re especially stout guarding the perimeter, limiting squads to just 35 percent from distance.
But Princeton isn’t especially lengthy (one starter over 6-feet-5) and the Tigers lack a consistent scorer outside of Henry Caruso, a 6-4 junior who is putting up 18.5 points and recording eight rebounds per game. Caruso is the clear breadwinner on both ends, shooting a team-high 58 percent from the field, 50 percent from beyond the arc, and coming up with at least one steal every night.
Forward Spencer Weisz (6-4), who can play a variety of spots, scores 9.3 points and averages 6.5 rebounds and four assists; forward Steven Cook (6-5) puts up 9.6 and five; and 6-11 center Peter Miller ha a 7.8 and 6.5 line. The first man off the bench, touted freshman guard Devin Cannaday (6-1), is actually second on the squad in scoring at 9.6 points per game, including a 39.4 percent 3-point rate.
“I don’t know if we’re on upset alert, but we’re going to be prepared. We have a lot of respect for Princeton,” Turgeon said. “They’re 6-2, they’re a team that can get really hot, everybody on their team can shoot it, and of course they execute at a high level.”
Turgeon and the Terps are hoping their fans can help disrupt that execution. Royal Farms Arena is sold out Dec. 19, and the Baltimore faithful figure to be out in full force.
“I think we’ll be excited,” Turgeon said. “[The game is] in Baltimore, it’ll be a great crowd and it should have our guys up and ready to play [Dec. 19].”