COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- The word of the season for head coach Mark Turgeon and his Maryland players thus far has been “consistency.” Whether addressing the Terps’ night-in-night-out energy, the collective defensive effort, the team’s basketball IQ, or the play of the three freshmen starters and junior Melo Trimble, more often than not “consistent” is going to find its way into a statement.
It’s the main reason the Terps boast a 20-2 record and just won their fourth Big Ten road game for an 8-1 conference record.
“As I’ve been here, I’ve learned to stay consistent -- even if things aren’t working,” freshman forward Justin Jackson said. “You’ve got to stay consistent in everything you do… We have a lot of players that play well together, we have great team chemistry and … we’re consistent.”
Jackson, in particular, has been a constant of late, most noticeably on the shooting end. The 6-foot-7 forward put up 28 points and canned all five of his 3s against Minnesota, and he answered that effort with a 22-point performance on 4-of-7 from distance in UMD's latest victory versus Ohio State. But not only has Jackson been dialed in from deep, he’s been playing lockdown defense, passing the ball well and hitting the glass hard. In the Ohio State game, Jackson grabbed a career-high dozen rebounds.
“I just try to do my best to contribute on both ends, shooting and playing defense,” Jackson said. “One of the things Coach always talked about was we had a chance to be a great defensive team. …It’s a big emphasis for us. And [with rebounding], everyone wants the ball; it’s always a fight down there. I just try my best to help the team by giving effort [on the boards].”
Turgeon heaped praise on Jackson’s inspired play, but he made sure to talk up the forward’s classmates as well. The headman pointed out freshman wing Kevin Huerter’s continued efforts (nine points, four assists, three rebounds against Ohio State), and first-year point guard Anthony Cowan’s reliable play (11 points, five assists against OSU).
“Jackson has been off the chart the last two game shooting the ball, and that has really helped us spread the floor and it opens up the drive game, which he’s really good at. And he’s rebounding the ball well,” Turgeon said. “And Kevin’s been very consistent for us. He’s shooting the ball well, we’re putting the ball in his hands more, he’s great on ball screens, and he’s a great passer…. Kevin’s been making the right decisions…. And Anthony Cowan has had 10 assists and two turnovers the last two games, so he’s been pretty good too.”
One area Maryland hasn’t been especially consistent, though, is at the “5” spot. Senior Damonte Dodd has been a presence defensively, but is erratic on the other end. Ivan Bender has played alright in spurts, but has issues on defense. L.G. Gill has performed reasonably well, but he's been playing out of position.
Plus, big man Michal Cekovsky is just now beginning to contribute after missing about a month due to injury. Cekovsky played five minutes and scored four points against Ohio State, and Turgeon said he should’ve given him 10.
“Ceko was great in practice. … He gives us length, size and it would be nice if he’s ready to help us. I thought the two, three minutes he gave us in the second half against Ohio State were terrific with the shot block and the dunk,” Turgeon said. “He’s a key. I’m just trying not to bring him back too fast so he’s healthy the rest of the season.”
If Cekovsky and his fellow bigs can step up, it’ll make Maryland even more dynamic offensively. Additionally, having another large, wide body underneath should aid Maryland in rebounding, where UMD has struggled at times this year.
“The exciting part for me is I think we can get a lot better. Hopefully a month from now we’re a much better basketball team,” Turgeon said. “But probably the most surprising thing for me is what we’ve done on the road, going 5-0. … With that said, every time we tip I believe we’re going to win. I think our guys believe that too. But we’ve lost a couple and have a tough stretch coming up.”
Yes, the Terps were supposedly in the midst of a rough five-of-seven away from Xfinity Center stretch, but the most daunting date might be the upcoming home game. The Terps take on a ranked Purdue squad that’s won twice on the road in Big Ten play and is coming off an 80-59 dismantling of Northwestern in West Lafayette, Ind. The Boilermakers (18-5, 7-3 Big Ten) have won four of their last five, with the only blemish being a three-point road loss at Nebraska.
“Purdue is one heck of a basketball team. We’ve played a lot of really good teams, but they’re probably the best we’ve played,” said Turgeon, who admitted he might play both Cekovsky and Dodd together for stretches to combat Purdue’s length inside. “They’re a heck of a team.”
Purdue is a veteran, heady squad whose motion offense often confuses foes who fail to locate cutters or fill passing lanes. It’s no surprise, then, that the Boilermakers rank second in the league in scoring (83 points per game), second in field-goal percentage (49 percent) and first in scoring margin (plus-16.1). It helps that they’re lights out from 3 and have five plays who can legitimately dial from deep, topping the Big Ten with a 42.4 percent clip. Moreover, Purdue has the conference’s second best assist-to-turnover ratio thanks to their ball movement.
Defensively, the Boilermakers aren’t quite as potent, but they’re still solid. Purdue is sixth in the Big Ten in scoring defense (66.5 points per), eighth in field-goal percentage defense (40.8 percent), sixth in 3-point defense (33 percent) and third in rebounding margin (plus-nine). The Boilermakers aren’t particularly great at protecting the rim or forcing turnovers, however, ranking last in both categories.
“They do a great job, and they’ve put together almost the perfect team,” Turgeon said. “They have two really good post players and they have four guys on the floor at all times that can shoot the 3. They have six guys shooting 39 percent or better [from 3]. You’ve got to pick your poison. They’re hard to play one-on-one down there, and if you double them up it’s free shots for shooters. They’ve seen every defense you can possibly see… they see the floor and space the floor. [Coach] Matt [Painter] has done a great job there. They’re as balanced as any team we’ll see all year.”
In the backcourt, junior point guard P.J. Thompson runs the motion offense – and has done a stellar job of it. He’s not a scorer (7.5 points per game), but dishes out around four assists a game against less than one turnover per. In fact, Thompson has coughed the ball up just 15 times total all year. To boot, Thompson leads the team in steals, averaging one a night.
Next to Thompson is freshman Carsen Edwards, who assumed a starting role after just a few games this season. Edwards is averaging 11 points per game on 40 percent shooting, although he’s just 34.7 percent from range. Edwards chips in three boards and a couple assists per game as well.
Wing-guard Dakota Mathis rounds out the backcourt. The junior averages 10 points and shoots a stellar 49 percent from the field and 49.5 percent from deep. But, like Thompson, his calling card is his passing and floor vision. Mathis leads the squad with over four assists a night, and he turns it over only about once per game too.
In the frontcourt, sophomore Caleb Swanigan is Purdue’s bell-cow, developing into one of the Big Ten’s best after a season in West Lafayette. The versatile 6-9 forward drops 19 points per on 55.2 percent shooting. He also has touch out to 3, canning half of his 48 attempts. Swannigan passes the ball well too, averaging three assists per game, although he is prone to turnover. The big man’s calling card, however, is rebounding, where his 13 -- yes, 13 -- boards a night rank first in the conference.
“Swannigan is shooting the ball so well … phenomenal… that creates problems right there,” Turgeon said. “Then in the low post, at the ‘4,’ that’s a tough matchup for us. And he rebounds and creates problems.”
Jackson, more than likely, will be tasked with guarding Swannigan.
“Great player. I’ve seen highlights all over TV,” Jackson said. “But like Coach [Dustin] Clark said, you’ve got to take on the challenge and be ready.”
Last but not least, starting center Isaac Haas, who stands 7-2 and is a true interior presence. The junior Haas is second on the team at 13.3 points per game, shoots 61 percent from the field and records five rebounds a game. Not surprisingly, he’s Purdue’s most effective rim protector, averaging a block per.
Depending on the opponent and how they matchup, Purdue will start junior forward Vincent Edwards in place of Haas. Either way, the 6-8 Edwards, known for his 3-point shooting efficiency, typically plays more minutes than Haas, averaging 11.7 points on 47 percent from the field and 46 percent from deep. Edwards also picks up about five boards and is third on the squad in assists.
One depth player to watch is sophomore guard Ryan Cline, who sometimes sees starter’s minutes. Cline puts up a half-dozen points per and connects at a 44-percent rate from range (which is actually a better percentage than he shoots from the field).
“You can’t take any possession off,” Jackson said. “No matter who the opponent is, even if you feel you’re 100 times better or a million times worse, you can never take a play off…. You’ve got to come out with the same mindset, same energy, same effort.”