COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Typically the Maryland players don’t openly acknowledge midseason weekly individual honors, but freshman Justin Jackson admitted he had a big smile on his face before practice Jan. 23. After walking in the gym, a Terps’ assistant informed Jackson he’d earned co-Big Ten Freshman Player of the Week thanks to his 12-point, six-steal, nine-rebound, four-assist, two-block effort in UMD’s win at Iowa.
It was another stat-stuffing performance for the 6-foot-7 forward, who is averaging 10 points, six boards, an assist, a steal and a block per game this season.
“Justin’s a good player. He’s done it all year,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “He wasn’t scoring in a couple games, but I just thought defensively, even at Illinois, he was terrific defensively, and he was terrific against Iowa with his six steals. He rebounded well and he made a big-time shot when the shot-clock was going down. He did a lot of great things [against Iowa]… He played to exhaustion, and we had to give him a rest down the stretch… All of that was good to see.”
Jackson called the comments and the award “humbling,” but, true to form, made sure to heap credit on his teammates. The Canadian native said he’s always had a pass-first mentality, so it was no surprise he chose to talk more about his rebounds; steals; and assists than his points and any type of individual accolades.
“My mindset is just to keep working hard for my team,” Jackson said. “I like to see my teammates shine. It’s something I’ve grown up doing.
“I’ve just wanted to focus on doing other things well and helping my team. Just focus less on scoring and more on the defensive end; getting deflections and steals; and rebounds.”
Really, that’s been the team’s collective mindset all season. And it's how the Terps have overcome shooting and scoring slumps on their way to a 17-2 record and just one blemish in Big Ten play.
Against Iowa, Maryland underwent a five-minute second-half stretch where it failed to score, allowing the Hawkeyes to cut their deficit to three points. Then, with just five minutes left, the Terps went through a second dry spell, and this time Iowa gained a three-point advantage. But the Terps kept buckling down defensively and knocking down key 3s and jumpers to keep the game close. Eventually, they pulled away for an 84-76 triumph.
“The thing that was great about the [Iowa game] is we lost all momentum – 100 percent. We weren’t scoring, we were turning it over, they were making shots, they were getting rebounds – on the road that’s kind of hard to turn that off,” said Turgeon, who made sure to note how well big men Damonte Dodd and Ivan Bender played defensively. “But we kept making big shots; that’s probably what I was most proud of. That wasn’t our best game … but we kept making big shots.”
Junior guard Melo Trimble canned five of those big shots in a stellar 5-of-9 outing from beyond the arc. Backup point Jaylen Brantley hit two more clutch triples, continuing his steady contributions, while the once-maligned wing Jared Nickens chipped in a pair of 3s as well.
The junior Nickens had been quiet the last two games, reverting to early-season shooting-slump form, but he made the most of his seven minutes against the Hawkeyes.
“We’ve been talking to [Nickens] and Coach Turgeon has been talking to him,” Brantley said. “He’s gained a lot of confidence and responding the way Coach Turgeon wants him to respond. He’s been hitting some big shots for us.”
Said Turgeon: “Let’s not forgot how many big shots Jared hit as a freshman, and he’s starting to do it again. He’s feeling more comfortable, and I think his whole attitude of what he means to this team and what he needs to do for us to be successful has changed.”
Maryland ended up shooting 48 percent from distance against Iowa, and since Big Ten play began the Terps have been much more efficient behind the arc. Aside from a hiccup against Illinois (a game Maryland still won), the Terps have been better than 33 percent from range in each conference bout thus far.
“We recruit good shooters, and I think guys are getting comfortable,” Turgeon said. “I was at a loss earlier in the year. We were 1 for 18, 2 for 20… I was like you’ve got to be kidding me. Now we expect every shot to go in. … We’ve got good shooters and we’re hard to guard.”
Jackson, echoing his teammates like Kevin Huerter, Anthony Cowan and Brantley when asked the same question, said the team’s improved passing has directly aided the shooting uptick. Basically, he intimated it’s much easier to hit a 3 when you’re open.
“It’s just our chemistry, how well we know each other. We don’t have a problem sharing the ball,” Jackson said. “We like to see each other score and we like helping each other out, so I feel like that’s been the big thing.”
One of Maryland’s main distributors, though, might not be able to play in UMD’s next game against Rutgers Jan. 24. Trimble missed practice due to illness Jan. 23, leaving him questionable for the 7 p.m. affair in Xfinity.
Not that the Terps are overly concerned; they’ve been dealing with injuries all season. (Forward Michal Cekovsky is still out and questionable for Jan. 24).
“It’s the next-man up mentality. We’ve been talking about it all year,” Brantley said. “If [Trimble] can’t go we’ll be ready, and I feel like we’ll play just as hard. We’ll see what happens.”
Speaking of Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights (12-8, 1-6 Big Ten) come in after winning their first Big Ten bout over a team Maryland lost to: Nebraska. The Scarlet Knights beat the Huskers by a point, 65-64, during their Jan. 21 home game when Corey Sanders nailed a go-ahead jumper with just seconds remaining.
But beyond that, this is an RU team that’s struggled during conference play. The Scarlet Knights ranks last or second to last in the Big Ten in scoring offense (68.1 points per game), field goal percentage (41 percent), 3-point percentage (28.8 percent), free-throw percentage (63.8 percent) and assist-to-turnover ratio (0.9).
RU has been fairly proficient defensively, however. The Scarlet Knights give up about 65 points per game and hold foes to 39 percent shooting (third in Big Ten) and 31.6 percent from beyond the arc (fourth). They also hit the offensive glass particularly hard, ranking tops in the league in offensive boards and fourth overall in rebounding margin. Rutgers gets its fair share of blocks and steals too, sitting among the Big Ten’s upper-tier in both categories.
“You always like following a team after a victory rather than a loss. I’ve learned that over the years…. But Rutgers is a good team. They’re 12-8, four games over .500,” Turgeon said. “We’ve had a long time to prepare, and we learned a lot from the Nebraska game. Nebraska came in and beat us… [Rutgers] beat Nebraska and we didn’t. They have a player as good as any in the league in Sanders. … And they rebound the ball better than anyone in the league, which is tough for us. We don’t rebound well; we have to be a much more physical team.”
The aforementioned point guard Corey Sanders leads the squad in scoring (12.4 points per game), assists (about 3.5 per) and steals. But he’s turnover prone and isn’t known as a “true” point with superior floor vision. Sanders also has had his struggles from 3 (21 percent) and the foul line (62 percent).
Joining Sanders in the backcourt is Nigel Johnson, who is third on the team at 11.3 points per game. Like Sanders, Johnson has had issues shooting (36 percent from the field, 27 percent from range) and from the charity stripe (67 percent).
Guards Mike Williams and Laurent Johnson don’t start for RU, but both frequently rotate in and play around half the game. Williams, who plays often when the Scarlet Knights go to a smaller lineup, is fourth in scoring (9.9) and third in rebounding (4.5). Williams is also the squad’s most effective 3-point shooter at 34.5 percent.
Johnson, for his part, scores about four points and grabs almost three rebounds in anywhere from 15-20 minutes of action.
In the frontcourt, DeShawn Freeman has made his presence felt, averaging 11.5 points and a team-high 8.6 rebounds per game. He’s also a solid rim protector, picking up about a block a night, although Freeman does tend to cough the ball up.
Meanwhile, freshman forward Omoruyi Eugene has seen his minutes increase as the season has gone along. He’s now starting and typically gets a couple buckets and rebounds a night.
Finally, senior C.J. Gettys mans the center spot, recording around eights points and five rebounds per. For a 7-footer, however, he’s not the most avid shot blocker or glass cleaner around.
It’s also worth noting 6-9 forward Sa Candido, who leads the team in blocks and is third in rebounding while rotating through.
“Whether it’s a bad team or a great team, the mindset is always the same,” Jackson said. “Our team is always going to come out the same way. We know we have to be physical and we have to battle.”