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With Huerter gone and Fernando back, Maryland basketball has familiar potential and problems ahead

Maryland men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon recruited Kevin Huerter and Bruno Fernando because he thought they could one day play in the NBA, so it was only appropriate that as the Terps underclassmen moved to the brink of the leap, working out at last month’s draft combine in Chicago, he joined them there.

Huerter, the less heralded of the Terps’ then-undecided early-entry candidates — classmate Justin Jackson had already signed with an agent — impressed as a shooter, passer and athlete. Fernando, then considered a possible first-round pick, was tall (measuring in at nearly 6 feet 10 in shoes), jumped high (nearly 2 1/2 feet) and shot well in drills.

It was enough to make an NBC Sports Washington reporter on hand ask Turgeon about his mixed emotions: the joy of seeing his players shine for pro scouts, and the dread of having to replace them.

“It's all about the kid, because I'm old now,” Turgeon said. “I've got a few gray hairs. I'm fine. I tell [Huerter and Fernando]: ‘I'm fine. Don't worry about me.’ ”

While the comings and goings in College Park this week weren’t program-shaking enough to turn Turgeon’s salt-and-pepper look into a full-on Anderson Cooper imitation, it is fair to wonder whether there is still cause for concern ahead of the 2018-19 season.

Huerter decided to sign with an agent and remain in the draft, leaving Maryland after two seasons of considerable growth and no postseason wins for what seems to be a certain first-round selection.

Fernando chose to come back for his sophomore season, giving the Terps one of the Big Ten Conference’s top returning big men, provided he can stay healthy.

And now Turgeon must mold a roster with familiar potential and problems. There’s talent, but how seasoned is it? Maryland often started two sophomores (Huerter and Anthony Cowan Jr.) and two freshmen (Fernando and Darryl Morsell) last season. The smart money on this season has the Terps starting … you guessed it … two sophomores (Fernando and Morsell) and two freshmen (Jalen Smith and Aaron Wiggins).

After a difficult 2017-18 season that ended without a postseason appearance for the first time in four years, Turgeon would have walked across hot coals — or at least would be more OK with an increasingly warm seat — to have both Huerter and Fernando back. But if the team could stand to lose just one, it might have been the more valuable Huerter.

With Fernando’s return, the Terps can slot the highlight-reel regular into the starting role at center, where he projects at the next level, and not have to worry about the five-star forward Smith (Mount Saint Joseph) handling Division I widebodies. (Smith’s nickname is “Sticks,” after all.)

Whether Fernando and Smith’s backups can provide cover is another matter. Michal Cekovsky and Sean Obi are gone. Rising senior forward Ivan Bender, who had two ACL surgeries on his left knee before arriving at Maryland, tore the meniscus in his right knee in December. Rising redshirt sophomore Joshua Tomaic showed flashes of offensive talent but is limited athletically. Center Schnider Herard, eligible to play as a transfer after the fall semester, didn't average even double-digit minutes on a National Invitation Tournament-bound Mississippi State team.

There’s more depth, and probably more youth, too, in the backcourt. In becoming one of the Big Ten’s top all-around point guards last season, Cowan made gains in nearly every facet of his game. The one exception, late-game execution, should improve with a reduced workload. Cowan averaged nearly 39 minutes per game in conference play. That has to go down. With other new arrivals, it should.

Four-star guard Eric Ayala will be well prepared for the grind of a college schedule after a standout season for prep powerhouse IMG Academy. Three-star guard Serrel Smith projects as more of a scorer than distributor, but should round into an off-the-bench contributor by season’s end.

Huerter’s absence will hurt on the wing, but in Wiggins, a top-40 recruit, the Terps have a capable replacement, a smooth operator who can slash and shoot. Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph) was inconsistent as a freshman, but only minor improvements on his unreliable 3-point shot (he made just three of 25 attempts last season) could make him a reliable double-digit scorer.

How they all fit together, the ball-handlers and the wings and the big men, will be Turgeon’s problem to solve. It wasn’t a lack of talent that largely doomed his team last season but injuries and turnovers. Too many injuries, and so many turnovers.

Another season with dicey postseason prospects will only tighten the focus on his job performance. Turgeon has five years left on a contract worth $2.7 million annually. NCAA tournaments are a baseline expectation in College Park, and he should have the team in place to get back there.

If not, it will be another unnerving offseason. Fernando’s not long for the college game, and Jalen Smith might be the Terps’ next one-and-done. In preseason polls, Maryland is seen as a borderline top-25 team. That prediction might have to become reality to keep a lot more people from worrying about Turgeon and his program.

jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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