Baltimore Sun reporters Jeff Barker and Don Markus and editor Matt Bracken weigh in on the three biggest topics of the past week in Maryland sports.
What is the biggest surprise of this young Maryland basketball season?
Jeff Barker: Well, it’s not the contributions of all the newcomers. We all knew the freshmen – plus transfers Dez Wells and Logan Aronhalt – would assert themselves early. There was too much talent in the group for them not to. At one point during Tuesday night’s Northwestern victory, coach Mark Turgeon had five players on the floor who weren’t on the team last season: Charles Mitchell, Shaquille Cleare, Jake Layman, Seth Allen and Wells.
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Rather, what has surprised me is which freshmen have been most prominent. You can never guess how quickly young players will mature. Sometimes a light just goes on for guys. It’s like trying to guess when the first big winter snow will arrive. You suspect it will happen, but you don’t know quite when.
Turgeon predicted before the season that the game “would move too fast” for some of his first-year guys. But I wouldn’t have guessed he’d talking about Layman and Cleare, whose development has been more typically freshman-like than the others.
Layman and Cleare are averaging less than 14 minutes a game so far – substantially less than Wells, Allen and Mitchell.
Allen is averaging 20.7 minutes and Mitchell 17.0. Wells has started every game and is playing a team-high 26.8 minutes a game.
There was an upbeat moment during Turgeon’s media availability following the Northwestern game. The coach was clearly delighted about a second half that was Maryland’s strongest of the season. As he reflected on it, it occurred to him that if the Terps can play this well now, how good might they be when the other freshmen catch up?
Of course, another surprise has been Maryland’s rebounding. It’s better than advertised. The Terps haven’t always been facing top frontcourts up to now. But they have rebounded well against pretty much everybody, including Kentucky in the season opener.
Maryland’s rebounding margin of plus 15.2 was second-best in the nation (Colorado State was first). And that was before the Terps rolled up a 47-19 rebounding advantage on Tuesday night.
How did Maryland’s performance in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge stack up to the rest of the ACC and where are the Terps in the pecking order as the league season approaches?
Don Markus: Aside from Virginia’s win at Wisconsin, Maryland’s dominant performance at Northwestern was the most impressive in the two-day competition. That it came on the road, and against a veteran team that has been on the NCAA tournament bubble the past couple of years and plays a style that can give a young, athletic group fits, added up to one of Mark Turgeon’s best wins since he came to College Park.
I think what the Terps showed in that game -- especially Alex Len and Dez Wells -- should send a message to the rest of the league. The last time Maryland had two NBA-caliber players in the lineup was 2009-10, when Greivis Vasquez was a senior and Jordan Williams was a freshman, and the Terps came within a last-second shot of beating Michigan State and going to the Sweet 16.
As good as Vasquez and Williams were, Wells and Len might be better because they have a much more explosive cast surrounding them. Opponents won’t be able to double-team Len as they did Williams and Wells won’t be asked to do nearly as much as Vasquez had to as the young talent continues to develop around them.
Comparing how Maryland played – and has played this season – to the rest of the ACC, I think the ACC-Big Ten Challenge exposed the top of the league as being very good, but far from great. North Carolina was throttled at Indiana after having already lost to Butler in Maui. North Carolina State was schooled rather effectively at Michigan and had already been beaten soundly by Oklahoma State in Puerto Rico.
You can’t find too many things wrong with Duke given the schedule the Blue Devils have played, but their previous wins against Top 5 teams (Kentucky and Louisville) came in neutral settings and Ohio State did as much to lose at Cameron Indoor Stadium as Duke did to win. Given how well Maryland played Duke at Comcast Center last season, I like its chances this season.
What the ACC-Big Ten Challenge showed is that the Terps should be in the top half of the conference without much trouble and could be fighting for one of those byes given to the top four teams at the ACC Tournament in Greensboro, N.C. They have as much quality depth as just about anyone in the league, and in Wells and Len, two players who will certainly be going in the NBA Draft’s first round when they leave.
Does Maryland have a decent shot at landing Dwayne Morgan?
Matt Bracken: It's no secret that recruiting stories are typically formulaic and overly positive. Coaches and players almost always have good things to say about the schools recruiting them. As former Washington Post reporter Josh Barr sarcastically asked on Twitter yesterday, "does anyone ever have a bad visit?"
Which brings us to St. Frances' Dwayne Morgan, a 6-foot-7 forward who has reminded some local hoops followers of a young Rudy Gay. Scout.com ranks the Panthers junior a five-star prospect and the No. 3 small forward in the country, while ESPN.com -- which also lists him as a five-star player -- pegs Morgan as the No. 17 player nationally in the 2014 class.
Morgan was in College Park last weekend for the Georgia Southern game. I spoke to Dwayne Wise, the general manager of Under Armour B'more's Finest, Morgan's AAU team, a few days after his visit. And predictably, nothing but positive things were said about Morgan's trip, how he feels about the Terps, and anything else related to Maryland basketball.
While it was no surprise to hear Wise call Morgan's trip "a great visit," I thought some of the specifics mentioned about Maryland were a bit more enlightening than standard recruit speak. Several times Wise spoke about Mark Turgeon's willingness to play freshmen. "He goes with who can do it on the floor, whether it’s freshmen or seniors," said Wise, citing the minutes Charles Mitchell, Seth Allen, Shaquille Cleare and Jake Layman have seen so far. Granted, Maryland is playing most of those guys out of necessity, but Wise's point stands: "If you’re a freshman and you can play, you’re going to play. That’s the attraction with Turgeon."
The other telling part of the interview, in my opinion, dealt with two schools trying to get back in the mix for Morgan: Georgetown and Villanova. Morgan had trimmed his list to six schools (Indiana, Maryland, Missouri, Seton Hall, South Florida, UNLV) last month, but that certainly hasn't stopped others from calling. Wise made it clear that the Hoyas and Wildcats haven't risen to the level of the other six, and that Morgan doesn't necessarily plan on adding schools to his list. But with any big-time recruit, that door always seems to be opened a crack.
Even if other schools are eventually added to Morgan's list, my sense is that Maryland will be a top contender until the very end. Every school on the list has a shot, but the ones that seem to stand out for obvious reasons are Maryland (location, relationship with Turgeon, fan support, etc.), South Florida (Baltimore's favorite son, Eric Skeeters, is the assistant handling the Bulls' recruitment), Indiana (No. 1 team in the country with lots of ties to the DMV, including former Team Takeover and Towson assistant Kenny Johnson on staff) and UNLV (St. Frances grad and former Under Armour B'more's Finest point guard Daquan Cook is a freshman there).
Maryland, though, remains in excellent shape for Morgan. Needless to say the days of icy relations between the Terps basketball program and this city are long gone.