COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- As it is seemingly every year in today’s game of college basketball, that second weekend in November represents a series of new beginnings for numerous players throughout the country -- whether it’s an 18-year-old straight out of high school playing his first game at the college level; a graduate transfer looking to make one last run at a big-time program; or a traditional transfer finally able to see the floor after a year on the bench.
For Maryland, the Nov. 11 season opener against American will be a new experience for three key freshmen and a transfer who spent his formative years at the mid-major level.
“The young guys are ready. Anthony Cowan is definitely ready; he played well in the exhibition [against Catawba],” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “I think Kevin Huerter is ready, and I think Justin Jackson is ready. And L.G. Gill, he’s ready. I think all four of those guys will be a big part of our rotation. They’re ready to help us.”
The first-year point guard Cowan, a D.C. native who prepped at St. John’s, grew up in the shadows of College Park and has seen more Maryland games live than some of the sophomores already in the program. Now, he’s finally able to participate, rather than taking in the action as a spectator.
The freshman two-guard Huerter has taken in a couple affairs in Xfinity Center after trekking down from upstate New York, where he played at Shenendehowa Central. He has an idea what it’s like to play in front of the Maryland faithful, but realizes it’ll probably be much different come 7 p.m. Nov. 11, when he walks out in a white Terps’ tank.
The first-year jack-of-all trades Jackson, well, the Canadian native who comes to UMD by way of Nevada (Findlay Prep), likely doesn’t have the slightest idea what it’s like to lace up in College Park. He’s yet to take in a Terps’ game live, other than the initial exhibition in front of a smattering of fans.
And then there’s fifth-year transfer L.G. Gill, who spent his formative years at Duquesne. Gill grew up in Chesterfield, Va., close enough to College Park where he was well aware of the goings on at Maryland. But even he admitted he doesn’t know quite what to expect coming out on opening night.
“It’s my last first game of the season, so I’m definitely going through a lot of emotion,” the forward Gill said. “I have to make the best of it. I’m definitely excited to be here at Maryland and to play here in front of these fans.
“It’s easier coming in as a transfer, because you have that experience and you are more mature. Coming out of high school, you really don’t know what to expect. But for me, I don’t want to say it was an easy transition, but it was definitely easier than coming in as a freshman. Still, it’s an adjustment.”
Huerter was able to attend Maryland’s game against Purdue last season, and before that he took in Maryland Madness.
“But ever since committing over a year ago, I’ve definitely been looking forward to playing here in front of this crowd,” Huerter said. “I’m extremely excited, and it should be a fun time. Last year … the atmosphere was crazy. Seeing it in person, and imagining playing in front of it, it’s something I’ve been looking forward to.
“I don’t know about butterflies…maybe in warm-ups, maybe you’re a little jittery. But once the ball goes up, for me, it’s just basketball.”
Cowan, meanwhile, distinctly recalled being in the stands for UMD’s big win against Wisconsin last season, as well as the dismantling of Northwestern. But, of course, he’d seen plenty of Terps’ victories, and a few defeats, as well.
“I’ve been committed for two years now,” Cowan said. “I’ve been up here, and I’m ready. I’m definitely excited to get started. I’m ready for it, I’m excited for it. The coaching staff and the whole team is, really. We’re ready to go.”
Indeed they are. The Terps enter the season ranked 25th nationally, with much more subdued expectations compared to last year’s preseason No. 1-2 team. But Turgeon is encouraged, because this year’s squad seems to possess those incalculable intangible elements, defined by buzz words like “chemistry” and “work ethic” and “unselfish.” You know, those teams that pride themselves on passing and defense as opposed to flash, finesse and the 3-point shot?
“Maryland fans are going to love this team,” Turgeon said, “because they can really pass it and spread the floor.”
Terps’ fans saw a preview of that during the exhibition. Maryland produced 23 assists on 33 baskets against Catawba, while playing lockdown defense. Turgeon admitted the team didn’t rebound particularly well, but still performed adequately in other key defensive areas.
“In practice, we do box-out drills, really emphasize defense,” Huerter said. “You can’t play soft, you’ve got to rebound, you’ve got to be tough. And you’ve got to play team defense and trust each other.”
Said Cowan: “I think Coach wants our whole team identity to be defense. So every day, I come in and try to bring intensity on the defensive end… Day in and day out, you have to be ready to step up.”
That goes for the offensive side too. The newbies all agreed they love Maryland’s free-flowing offense, and the crisp passing provided by junior Melo Trimble and the rest of the backcourt.
“It’s an offense you can really get comfortable in,” said Huerter, who mentioned he’s been watching former Terp Jake Layman in the NBA. “Passing is another thing I bring to the table. I like passing the ball, and there’s a lot of guys on this team that pass it well. When we’re all moving the ball well, we find [open] shots, and it makes it fun. We’re doing well with that right now.”
Cowan in particular. During the exhibition, Trimble was hobbled with an injury, allowing the freshman from St. John’s to assume a starting role. (Trimble should be 100 percent by the Nov. 11 tip per Turgeon).
By all accounts, including Turgeon’s, he shined.
“Melo went down and I had to take a bigger role and run the offense,” Cowan said. “But I’m trying to be more vocal and a leader to the team. But [playing point] got me more confidence, and my teammates more confidence in me … just knowing that I could step in and contribute.”
If the first years’ development seems rather sudden, pin it on Turgeon’s intense practices. Evidently the Terps’ headman sought to exbidite the learning curve, so he went harder and longer in practice than ever before. In fact, he said a 2.5-hour workout “felt like a day off.”
“We really got after these guys, and they really worked,” Turgeon said. “It’s been fun, There’s been a lot of coaching and teaching involved. It’s been a fun group to work with.”
Huerter said the first few weeks were “definitely tough,” but after the initial shock, the freshmen found their groove. Gill, meanwhile, noted his practices at Duquesne were nothing compared to this year's in College Park.
“But I just feel a lot more comfortable each practice. You start to realize what the coaches want out of you, what’s going to keep you on the court and what’s going to take you off,” Huerter said. “I think after six weeks of practice, I’m definitely feeling a lot more confident.”
Now the question is, who starts?
The players, to a man, said it didn’t matter. They each repeated the company line of they didn’t care who takes the floor first as long as the team is winning.
“I’m not going to tell you who’s starting, but we’re going to have a different starting lineup than we did in the exhibition game,” Turgeon said. “We’re trying to figure it out. A lot of it will be based on who’s healthy and who we’re playing. It’s a lot of different things to it.”
Said Huerter: “We definitely have messed with a bunch of different lineups in practice, and Coach Turgeon stressed a lot of guys are going to play. You always have to be ready.”
No matter who starts Nov. 11, the Terps will have to be ready for American’s Princeton offense. But beyond the offensive system, the UMD players admitted they didn’t know a whole lot about their first opponent, nor did the Eagles know a ton about Maryland.
“We’ll be prepared,” Cowan said. “Coach Turgeon has made sure of that.”
Note: Neither Michal Cekovsky nor Ivan Bender will play against American and will be sidelined for the foreseeable future with injuries. Expect the Terps to employ smaller lineups with both big-men out.