COLLEGE PARK, Md. – The Terps are sitting 8-1, but Maryland coach Mark Turgeon warned the record can be a bit deceiving. After barely surviving against a couple mid-major opponents, having to storm back from double-digit deficits to knock off the likes of Georgetown and Oklahoma State, and falling at home against Pittsburgh, Turgeon and his team know it has much to improve on.
Thus was the theme of the Dec. 6 press conference: Areas of improvement for a team with a lone blemish through nine games.
The first order of business: The bench, which has thrived at times (32 points against Georgetown, 22 against Kansas State and Oklahoma State) but been non-existent at others.
"I like our bench a lot. I look down there and I’ve got a lot of pieces. We won because of our bench the other night [against Oklahoma State],” Turgeon said. “Jaylen [Brantley] gave us huge minutes, [Michal Cekovsky] came off the bench and gave us 16 points. But I think a lot of it is the big guys can’t get healthy, it’s all new to L.G [Gill], you’ve got three young guys trying to learn, and Dion [Wiley] is coming off a major injury. Little by little, slowly but surely, Dion is getting better. I’d like to think come league time he’s even closer to 100 percent.
“But we have great depth and I’m not afraid to use them. It’s just about finding the consistency that’ll be the key.”
The backup point guard Brantley was the driving force behind Maryland’s comeback victory against Oklahoma State. The junior contributed 12 points and played lockdown defense, while doing some of his best work with starter Melo Trimble on the bench.
“It’s huge to get the bench going, getting the rotation going. I think the bench production is going to be really good as the season goes on,” Brantley said. “Guys like Jared [Nickens], Dion, we have all the confidence in the world in those guys. They’re going to get going, and when they do it’s really going to help us even more.”
Brantley’s continued development is essential, per Turgeon. If the junior college transfer can at the very least make smart decisions and hold down the fort defensively, it’ll let Trimble rest for extended periods. Adding backup guard Dion Wiley to the mix would help as well, allowing Anthony Cowan to shift over to the point.
Regardless of how it’s done, Turgeon would like to limit Trimble’s minutes over the next month so he’ll be fresh for conference play.
“You’d always like to have a little more depth, but I don’t know if we’re going to be able to do it. I’d like not to play Melo 33, 34 minutes the next four games. … But if that’s what it takes, we’ll do it,” Turgeon said. “I’d like to get Dion’s minutes up more if his knee can handle it, we all have confidence in Jaylen, and LG Gill is going to be important once league play starts. We’ll see. I’d like to be a much deeper team heading into league play than we are right now.”
The next order of business, after developing the bench and finding more depth, is identifying a reliable second scorer behind Trimble. The junior star leads the team at 19.3 points per game, but no one else has proved a consistent threat game in, game out.
“I think Justin [Jackson] has been the most consistent, but there’s a lot of guys on this team I think can score,” Turgeon said. “Ceko can score in the low post, I think LG can give us points, Dion can give us point, Kevin Huerter can give us points, [Anthony] Cowan can give us points and Jared [Nickens], depending on how we’re being guarded, can give us points. I still have all the confidence in the world in Jared…. And Jaylen Brantley has been a big-time performer. But is it going to be consistent behind Melo? Probably not.”
The freshman forward Jackson started off hot and earned a starting spot, but against Maryland’s last three high-major foes, Oklahoma State, Pitt and Kansas State, he’s scored eight; eight; and 11 points. He hasn’t been particularly efficient of late, and his 3-point shot hasn’t been falling.
“I’d probably say I need to be a little more aggressive. I’ve been in an offensive slump, but it’s alright. Every player goes through it. I just have to get in the gym and get up extra shots,” Jackson said. “The problem with me is confidence in my shot. When I’m open, I have to have confidence.”
Which leads us to the third order of business: The three starting freshmen continuing to improve.
Jackson, Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter have been essential to UMD’s success this year, but all three have to keep developing for this team to reach the next level.
“Anthony, I just want him to run the team. Anthony can score -- he made a big 3 the other night -- but against Kansas State, our best game all year, he had six assists and zero turnovers. That’s really what he needs to do. I want him to run our team and play great defensively,” Turgeon said. “Kevin Huerter, just continue to improve defensively and improve within our offense, and then get more physical -- that’s something we’re on Kevin about all the time. And Justin Jackson, it’s about getting more comfortable with the system, getting better defensively and becoming more physical. He’s a good rebounder, but he can be a little more physical boxing out. And I think we can use Justin a little differently as the season goes on -- maybe use him in the post a little more.”
Last but not least: Executing in the first half.
The Terps have made a habit of starting games slowly on both ends of the floor, before picking up the pace in the second half. Thus, they’ve had to overcome double-digit deficits and rely on late-game heroics to pull out a few victories.
“We have to follow the scouting report a little bit better, that might help us start a little better,” Turgeon said. “So, let’s concentrate on our defensive game plan from the first possession; let’s don’t wait until the second half. Let’s concentrate on our execution [at the start of the game], so we can continue to get good shots… let’s concentrate on taking care of the ball [in the first half], because if you look at the numbers, it’s not even close between [turnovers] in the second half and the first half. We’ve kind of gone that approach instead of them thinking they're not a good first-half team.”
The Terps should be able to start fairly fast Dec. 7 against local foe Howard, which is 1-5 and just registered its first win Dec. 3 with a 71-54 victory over American. Maryland beat that same AU squad by six points.
That said, the Bison average 14 points less than their opponents, shoot only 40 percent from the field (31.6 percent from 3, 66 percent from the line), and are typically out-boarded each night.
Howard is led by junior two-guard James Miller, who is averaging almost 19 points, two assists and two steals per game. Senior forward Solomon Mangham is second on the squad at 13 points per, and senior point-forward Damon Collins leads averages about 12 points and two assists a night.
“I think it’s pretty cool to play another local team, it’s cool for the fans around here,” Brantley said. “I think all the teams we play against are great. We’re looking forward to playing [Howard].”
Howard begins a stretch of four straight low- to mid-major opponents for Maryland before Big Ten play begins. Turgeon and Co. aren’t overlooking their next few foes, but the key is continuing to develop each of those aforementioned orders of business.
“We had a really hard practice [Dec. 6]. I didn’t want the guys to think that because it’s not Oklahoma State or Kansas State we’re not trying to get better,” Turgeon said. “Our guys know that. It’s always about us, all the time.
“But we have to get better. We’re not playing where we need to play, and hopefully we find some rhythm heading into league play.”