COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Maryland is in the midst of a long road stretch where the Terps play five of their next seven games away from Xfinity Center. But while daunting on the surface, these Terps don’t seem to care all that much where the game is played. Maryland (18-2, 6-1 Big Ten) hasn’t lost a true road game all year and are 3-0 in the conference. So, when the Terps travel to Minnesota Jan. 28, they’re entering Minneapolis confident and ready to roll.
“Every time we go on the road, we play a lot of shooting games and have a lot of fun,” said freshman Kevin Huerter. “We make sound effects, we go out to dinner and we hang out in the hotel. It’s fun…. And I think we stay together. When things get difficult, we don’t turn on each other on the court. We always trust each other, and even when we’re down we believe we can come back and win the game. …
“But I don’t think we’ve gotten the true road experience, to be honest, because the road games we’ve played the students haven’t been there. I think these next three weeks will tell a lot.”
Head coach Mark Turgeon basically said the same thing, harping on the “fun” mantra. He said his team has “figured out ways to win,” noting how the players have trust in one another and really enjoy playing together.
But although he has faith in his team, Turgeon knows it’s never easy to win on the road in league play. Which is why he and his squad aren’t taking the Golden Gophers in Williams Arena lightly.
“We know what lies ahead. You look at the scores in college basketball now and teams are getting whipped on the road, teams are getting tired,” Turgeon said. “Are we further along? Yeah, further than I expected. But the exciting thing is I think our team can grow… But we know these next three weeks are going to determine whether it’s a good season or a really, really good season.”
One way the Terps can grow is by simply getting healthy. Guard Dion Wiley is still out with a back injury and won’t travel to Minneapolis, but power forward Michal Cekovsky is recovered and should see an increased role moving forward. Turgeon said Cekovsky will play significant minutes against Minnesota and “looked good” in practice Jan. 27.
“Ceko’s getting better. He’s in the rotation, learning the plays, things like that,” fellow big man Damonte Dodd said. “I’ve been talking to him, and he’s ready to go.”
In addition to Cekovsky’s return, Turgeon and Co. are hoping freshman guard Anthony Cowan returns to form. Cowan has been solid all year, but in the Terps’ last game against Rutgers he struggled passing the ball; defending; and only scored three points.
Not that Turgeon is overly concerned with his first-year guard.
“He just didn’t have a good game. It happens,” Turgeon said. “I imagine Anthony will be back [Jan. 28]. He’s been unbelievably consistent for us.”
Namely, on the defensive end. In fact, all three of Maryland’s freshmen starters -- Cowan, Huerter and Justin Jackson -- have been standout defenders. Jackson and Huerter locked down in UMD’s game against Rutgers, helping to hold the Scarlet Knights’ potent scoring threat Corey Sanders to just two points after the former two rotated onto him at the end of the first half.
But, all in all, the freshmen’s collective effort certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed by anyone associated with the program.
“I knew Anthony was going to b a good defender, but I wasn’t sure about Justin and Kevin. But you can teach defense. If you work hard enough, you can [learn it],” Turgeon said. “But the things we ask Justin and Kevin to do defensively is beyond the norm. They’re much farther along [than I thought).”
One key contributor who hasn’t received the same accolades as the freshmen is graduate transfer L.G. Gill. While Gill only sees about 14 minutes a game, averaging four points and around three rebounds, he’s been a valuable asset at the “4” spot with Cekovsky out. Gill saw 13 minutes against Rutgers and ended up with seven points and three boards.
“LG is playing terrific. LG’s rebounding, LG’s in the right spots on defense, LG’s talking and getting guys in position,” Dodd said. “With him, he has to play multiple positions, and that’s not easy, but it shows you how talented and how good of a player he is that he’s able to adjust.”
Now, the freshmen trio, Gill and their teammates travel to Minnesota to take on a struggling Gophers’ squad that’s in the midst of a four-game losing skid. Minnesota (15-6, 3-5 Big Ten) just lost to Ohio State, 78-72, and previously dropped a home game against Wisconsin.
The Gophers’ offensive has been the root of the squad’s troubles this year. They score around 74 points per game (eights in the Big Ten), connect of 43 percent of their field goals (11th), hit at a 36 percent clip from range (11th) and shoot just 69.4 percent from the line (ninth). They sit middle of the pack, meanwhile, in assists; assist-to-turnover ratio; and offensive rebounding.
Defensively, the Gophers have actually performed fairly well. They’re only seventh in the Big Ten in scoring defense (67 points per game), but they hold foes to 39 percent shooting (second) and 29.6 percent from beyond the arc (first). Minnesota also excels at protecting the rim, where the Gophers sit first in the Big Ten at 6.4 blocks a night.
Trouble is, Minnesota doesn’t clean the glass particularly well, ranking 13th in defensive rebounding and 12th in overall rebounding margin.
The Terps, however, aren’t taking the Gophers lightly.
“They’re a good team; they were ranked at one point,” Huerter said. “They kind of have it all. A really good point guard, good freshmen, and big guys that rebound. They pose a challenge for us.”
Said Turgeon: "We’re Maryland basketball. We’re always the hunted…. We know it's going to be a big game [for Minnesota Jan. 28]. ... Everybody gets fired up to play us. We’ve won national championships, been to a Final Four, had 59 pros. We understand people come after us. But this team just focuses on the task at hand."
In the backcourt, point guard Nate Mason leads the way at 14 points per game, although he only shoots 38 percent form the field and 39.5 percent from 3. He’s known more for his passing (5.5 assists per), court vision and ability to guide the offense. Mason also averages more than a steal a night too.
“Mason is terrific. He shot the ball well the other night. He makes them go, so he’s a tough matchup. He can really score and what’s remarkable are his assists,” Turgeon said.
Joining Mason in the backcourt is sophomore Dupree McBrayer, who is third on the squad at 11.4 points per game. He shoots 45.5 percent from the field, 37 percent from range and drops about three dimes per game.
McBrayer, though, did not start Minnesota’s last game against OSU. In his place, graduate transfer Akeem Springs got the nod and ended up scoring 15 points, which means he probably cemented his spot. For the season, Springs is averaging 9.2 points per game and has proven to be the squad’s most effective 3-point shooter at 40 percent.
At wing, freshman Amir Coffey is averaging 12.2 points per game. He’s quite efficient inside the arc (47 percent shooting), but struggles from 3 (30 percent). Coffey grabs 3.7 rebounds a game and racks up just under three assists.
In the frontcourt, sophomore forward Jordan Murphy, a one-time Terps’ target, puts up about 10 points a night. He shoots 46 percent from the field, but doesn’t have much range and struggles from the free-throw line (55 percent) and with turnovers. Murphy is, however, the team’s leading rebounder at 7.7 per.
Rounding out the staring lineup is 6-foot-10 center Reggie Lynch, who’s the most proficient shot blocker in the conference. Lynch averages three rejections per game, putting him among the top-five nationally in that category. Lynch also chips in around six boards and 8.4 points per game.
“They’re a heck of a basketball team. They really are,” said Turgeon, who mentioned he’d address last year’s Minnesota game, which the Terps lost. “They have a really nice team and we’ve got to be locked into all of them.”