COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Almost one year ago to the day, the Terps trekked up I-95 to Baltimore for a game against Princeton. Maryland, as expected, handled the Tigers in a 20-plus point victory, but the key takeaway was the play of Jaylen Brantley. The backup point guard dropped in a career-high 14 second-half points in his first scoring outbreak since arriving at UMD from junior college.
Now, the junior is excited about returning to Royal Farms Arena for Maryland’s Dec. 20 bout against Charlotte (6-4), a running team led by Upper Marlboro, Md., native Jon Davis, who is averaging 19 points per game and has the Terps’ attention.
“[The Princeton game] was a lot of fun for me. I got to show people other sides of my game. I remember I scored 14 and just had a good time playing hard and getting the win,” said Brantley, who has developed into a valuable contributor for the Terps of late. “I can’t wait to go back to Baltimore.”
Besides the novelty of playing in front of a different home fan base, though, this upcoming matchup is all about Maryland’s continued improvement before Big Ten play begins Dec. 27 against Illinois. Brantley said the team needs to come together and show that it can defend and rebound, first and foremost, while continuing to shoot the ball effectively.
“Coach [Mark] Turgeon always emphasizes defense and rebounding,” said freshman guard Kevin Huerter, who, ironically enough, mentioned he’s focused on his ball-handling and shooting during Maryland’s recent break for final exams. “We know if our shots aren’t falling, we can always fall back on our defense and rebounding, so that’s always a big thing for us.”
Turgeon’s main worry heading into the bout in Baltimore, however, is how the layoff will effect his team’s focus and energy. The players were given five days off after the Dec. 12 game against Jacksonville State and have been back practicing for two days.
“We just tried to keep our rhythm this week as best we could. We had a few guys sick – it was a good time to get sick if you’re going to get sick. And it was a good time off for a lot of people. Ivan [Bender] with the broken wrist and hurt knee, it’s been good for him. The extra rest in practice has been good for LG Gill, it’s been good for [Michal Cekovsky], and it’s been good for all our young guys,” said Turgeon, who mentioned injured big man Damonte Dodd [MCL] is still sidelined and will be reevaluated after Christmas. “But we’ve had two good days of practice, and we just want to keep improving. Offensively, we’ve gotten better the last two games, so hopefully we can keep that rhythm and keep taking good shots. Defensively and rebounding, it’s an everyday deal for us, so hopefully we can continue to improve [in those areas] too.”
Besides Brantley, who has perhaps taken the most strides this season, Turgeon once again singled out two other role players who have been developing. He reiterated that sophomore guard Dion Wiley “is coming along” after finding his stroke against Jacksonville State, and mentioned sophomore power forward Ivan Bender as another valuable piece off the bench.
Bender has quietly pulled down his share of rebounds during limited action the last few games, but in Maryland’s latest bout he showed off his touch around the rim. He ended up with a season-high 10 points, to go along with three boards and an assist.
“Ivan knows who he, is which is great,” Turgeon said. “He’s a smart basketball player, a great passer, he has a great feel offensively, and defensively he’s solid. When he’s locked in, he’s a great ball-screen defender, which is important in today’s game, and he’s a good position defender too. I just hope he can stay healthy.”
While Wiley and Bender have been trending up, junior wing Jared Nickens seems to be heading in the opposite direction. Mired in a season-long shooting slump, Nickens, who had just a single free-throw against St. Peter’s Dec. 10, didn’t play during the first half of the Jacksoville State affair. It was the first time during his UMD career Nickens didn’t see the floor in the game’s first 20 minutes.
“I’m sure it wasn’t easy for him. We had to start preparing for the Big Ten, so we had to shorten the bench a little bit,” Turgeon said. “But Jared is going to be a part of it. He’s been practicing well. Our guys know if they’re practicing well, they’re going to play.”
Regardless of who’s on the floor, the goal Dec. 20 is for the team, collectively, to shine on both ends of the floor. The Terps have come close to putting together a complete game with few lapses (see: Kansas State), but Turgeon and his players say there have been too many slow starts and too many inconsistencies.
“That’s a big thing – playing a full 40-minute game. That’s something we’re going to have to do in conference play,” Huerter said. “It’s something Coach Turgeon has stressed – playing a full 40 minutes. If we don’t do that in the conference, we’re going to get beat.”