COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- The Terps are sitting a perfect 7-0 heading into a tough two-game stretch against Pittsburgh and Oklahoma State, and while there are reasons aplenty for Maryland’s early-season success, it’s the rapid development of those three starting freshmen that keeps cropping up.
Well, that and a little help from an old standby who keeps making the “winning plays” head coach Mark Turgeon has harped on since Day One.
“Melo’s extremely confident, and he’s fearless on offense,” said one of the aforementioned first-years, guard Kevin Huerter, commenting on junior Melo Trimble Nov. 28. “He’s a leader out on the court, and when he’s making plays, it definitely makes is easier for us, because of how much attention is on him. When he’s on, it definitely picks up the whole team.”
Trimble, of course, converted back-to-back layups with 21 seconds remaining against Kansas State Nov. 26, helping Maryland to a 69-68 victory at the Barclays Center. The day before, in that same venue against Richmond, Trimble, en route to a game-high 31 points, knocked down four straight free throws in overtime to down the Spiders.
And those were just the most recent examples. For the season, Trimble is averaging almost 22 points per game on 46 percent shooting and 34 percent from range. He does have a negative assist-to-turnover ratio, but has done his part defensively with more than a steal a night.
“I’ve never really played with another guard like that,” said another freshman, guard Anthony Cowan, on his backcourt running mate. “Just the way he effects a game by his scoring, and like after every pick and roll he always finds a big guy underneath… It’s fun to watch and it makes it easier for me.
“We feed off each other’s energy a lot. We try to get each other going, and then from there that leads the team [to get] going.”
The Trimble-Cowan bond has been well-documented, a relationship that dates back before the two joined forces in College Park. The two DMV natives have known each other for several years, Cowan and Trimble routinely playing pick-up ball together in their free time. And when Cowan arrived from St. John’s (Washington, D.C.), Trimble promptly took him under his wing.
Recently, Cowan said he and Trimble sat down to dissect tape, with the veteran pointing out a couple areas the youngster could improve.
“I saw myself, really, seeing some of my teammates open and me not making the play; getting too deep into the lane; and taking shots I didn’t need to take, necessarily,” Cowan said. “That [session] was just me sitting down and making sure I make the right plays and know where my teammates are.
“With this team, I just have to make sure I’m making the right plays. I’m not having to do too much or score every single time. It makes it easier for me to just get the ball [to my teammates] in the right positions, and just make sure I key on defense and use my leadership.”
Turgeon, for his part, concurred with Cowan and Huerter. He made sure to mention Trimble’s integral role, tangibly and intangibly, in spurring the Maryland’s squad’s chemistry and heady play.
But Turgeon didn’t shy away from praising the newcomers, either.
“They’ve handled everything. I was talking to Bruce Weber and he said, ‘Boy, your three young guys play with great poise.’ Anthony has been that way his whole life, Kevin Huerter has great knowledge of the game and Justin Jackson is just a baller,” Turgeon said.
It’s one thing for Cowan, Huerter and Jackson to put up points and play lockdown defense against the American’s and Stony Brook’s of the world. But the trio have also excelled in crunch time against UMD’s tougher foes like Georgetown, Towson, Richmond and Kansas State.
Jackson nailed a pair of triples and had four blocks in the back-and-forth K-State affair. The do-everything forward, who is second on team at 12 points per game, also leads the squad in rebounding at almost 8 a night.
Huerter re-found his stroke with two 3s against both Kansas State and Richmond, while recording the key block to seal the Georgetown game (he has a team-high nine rejections this year). And Cowan has racked up 10 total assists the last two games, to go along with an 18-point outing against Richmond. Cowan ranks first on the team with almost four dimes per.
“It just shows we can stay together,” Huerter said. “In a lot of these games, we’ve been down with under a minute left and have had to make plays to win. … Every huddle we go in, Coach just stresses we have a lot of time left and just make plays to win the game.
“You just try to make winning plays. All the freshmen who have played so far are from programs used to winning. So when we’re out there, we’re not really thinking. We’re more reacting to how the game goes, whether it’s a block; contesting a jump shot; or Melo making a layup. We’re just used to winning and making winning plays.”
Now, the key is keeping these freshmen, well, fresh as the season moves along. Each of Jackson, Huerter and Cowan are playing at least 25 minutes a game.
“It’s a lot of ice baths and trying to relax,” Cowan quipped. “We make sure we’re off our feet when we can be.”
Turgeon even admitted mental fatigue could settle in, especially as conference play approaches. The first years have to adjust to not only the heightened competition, but also increased classwork and various other pressures.
“It’s still a learning curve,” Turgeon said. “We’re trying to help them navigate through everything. But I think Anthony can play 80 minutes a night and not get tired. Huerter works so hard in practice he’s caught his second wind. And Justin just loves to play and loves the game. … The great thing is I have a lot of weapons, and if one guy isn’t playing well I can go to other guys. I think that’s what we’re going to be about as the season goes on – just our depth. We’re going to have 11 guys I can rely on, and it might be a different eight or nine each night that are going to help us be successful.”
Yes, the Terps are steadily seeing more contributors as big men Michal Cekovsky and Ivan Bender have returned from injury, and center Damonte Dodd quickly recovered from a concussion. Additionally, Turgeon was encouraged by transfer L.G. Gill’s play in the second half against Kansas State, despite the final stat line. And the headman once again defended struggling wing Jared Nickens and guard Dion Wiley, saying he’s confident both will come around as the season progresses.
“We’ve been able to go a lot of different directions with this team, and that’s helped us. Our execution has gotten better, our desire to figure out how to win a game has gotten better,” Turgeon said. “We’re definitely learning, but we really grew up playing four games in eight days and three in five days. Having two close wins, it really brings the team together and helps you believe in yourselves when you pull of those late-game victories.
“We’ve just been resilient. I think we’re starting to listen a little better, execute better and we’re getting a little tougher. I like my group, being around them and coaching them. But we’re nowhere near where we’re going to be.”
Taking On The Panthers
It may not have the appeal of Maryland-Duke or Maryland-North Carolina, but this year’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge between the Terps and Pittsburgh (5-1) does present some intriguing storylines. Namely, the connection between new Panthers’ coach Kevin Stallings and Maryland headman Mark Turgeon. The two both served as assistants at Kansas from 1989-1992, seeing the Jayhawks go to three NCAA tournaments and the 1991 championship game.
But beyond that, though, this is simply another early-season test for a Maryland squad that’s proved its mettle with single-digit victories over Georgetown, Towson, Richmond and Kansas State this year.
Pittsburgh is a lengthy, veteran squad that returns six of its top seven scorers from a year ago. The Panthers, who have defeated Maryland three straight times, including twice in 2013-14 right before UMD left the ACC, feature two of the ACC’s top three leading scorers in seniors Michael Young and Jamel Artis.
“We have to deal with their size,” Turgeon said. “We’ve gotten a lot more physical, we’ve gotten a little bit tougher and we rebounded a little bit better this week, so that will help us going into Pittsburgh. But they give us some matchup problems. This Michael Young kid, we haven’t seen anything like him this year.”
The 6-9, 235-pound Young ranks first in the conference at 23.3 points per game, to go along with 3.0 assists per and 8.3 rebounds a night. Young also has a team-high nine blocks and shoots 85 percent from the line, proving to be Pitt’s most active rim protector and foul shooter.
The 6-7, 215-pound point guard Artis, who is from Baltimore, is putting up almost 20 points on average. He shoots 46 percent from the field, a respectable 32 percent from distance, and averages about five rebounds and a steal a night. Artis also dishes out more than four assists per game and turns the ball over only about twice.
“He’s definitely a guy we have to stop. Just like their whole team, he’s a tough, physical player. We have to be ready for him,” Huerter said of Artis.
Pittsburgh has received significant contributions of late from sophomore guard Cameron Johnson too, the 6-8, 210-pounder putting up 11 points per game and shooting a team-best 55 percent from 3.
Meanwhile, senior forward Sheldon Jeter leads the squad in rebounds with 7.7 per, and wing Chris Jones, who has struggled at time, chips in 6.7 points a game.
Pitt, though, isn’t the deepest team around, with six or seven Panthers receiving regular court time. They’ve relied heavily on Young and Artis to carry the load offensively, the rest of the team going through passive stretches at times. Plus, the Panthers haven’t always been the most efficient shooting squad, drawing criticism for their shot selection. Stallings, for his part, has harped on the need for more defensive intensity as well.
“We haven’t shown any killer instinct yet,” Stallings said after Pitt’s latest win against Morehead State.
But Pittsburgh has a signature win of sorts against Marquette in which the Panthers came from 15 down to knock off the Golden Eagles. Furthermore, Pitt, which has won three of its five games by five points or less, is a tough-minded squad predicated on smart decision making; actively sharing the basketball; and solid team defense.
Which means the Terps are probably in for another close battle.
“The big word Coach has been stressing this year is, ‘Toughness.’ Before K-State, we knew they were going to be big and athletic, and the [coaches] drew on the board, ‘Toughness,’” Huerter said. “We knew we had to go out there rebounding, have guys who were going to be ready to scrap, grab offensive rebounds, things like that. Hopefully it continues as the season goes along.”