Maryland men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon has won 400 Division I games and taken his team to the NCAA tournament eight times, including the past three years with the Terps.
As Big Ten play resumes Tuesday for Maryland with a home game against Penn State, the Terps are 12-3 and 1-1 in their first two league games played in early December.
After Friday’s 66-45 win over UMBC, Turgeon said that his team’s poor first-half performance was not a major concern, but said that the Terps will have a “small margin for error” going forward.
Turgeon said that knowing his team would be without sophomore forward Justin Jackson for the rest of the season with a torn labrum and that redshirt junior forward Ivan Bender had just suffered a serious knee injury.
It was announced Sunday that Bender, the likely candidate to replace Jackson at power forward, would also miss the remainder of the season because of a torn meniscus in his right knee suffered in the second half against UMBC.
Three things that need to go right for the Terps to make the NCAA tournament:
Freshmen Bruno Fernando and Darryl Morsell will have to grow up quickly.
Fernando and Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph) have quickly proven themselves to be among the team’s best — and certainly toughest — players.
“I think Darryl’s kind of a natural leader, Bruno likes to talk [on the court],” Turgeon said in a teleconference Monday.
Fernando, a 6-foot-10 center from Angola, has shown flashes of being the kind of athletic, active big man the Terps haven’t had in a long time, certainly since Turgeon came to Maryland seven years ago.
Slowed twice by sprained ankles, once in preseason practice and more recently against Ohio last month, Fernando has the potential to be one of the best big men in the Big Ten if he can stay healthy.
“The key is keeping Bruno healthy, we want to play him more minutes,” Turgeon said. “He’s getting back in shape, he’s not in great shape yet from the ankle injury before Christmas.”
While Fernando’s scoring is important, his rebounding and shot-blocking will be even more vital because of Jackson’s absence. If he can do both, it will allow the Terps to run and score in transition.
Despite Morsell suffering a hamstring injury that took away his eye-popping athleticism for a couple of weeks, the 6-5 Baltimorean will be called on as a third or fourth scoring option, as well as to stop the other team’s top perimeter scorer.
Fernando and Morsell were used as energizers off the bench early in the season, but the combination of injuries to others and their own emerging talent has made that a luxury Turgeon no longer can afford to use.
“The responsibility’s squarely on their plate now,” Turgeon said. “I think they both started the other night [against UMBC], they’ll probably both start tomorrow night. They’re ready for it, they can handle it.”
Kevin Huerter and Anthony Cowan Jr. will have to carry the offensive load.
The sophomore guards have started every game they have played at Maryland, and even when Jackson was healthy and struggling with his shooting, they had become the team’s top two scoring options this season.
Unselfish to a fault, Huerter needs to look for his shot as he did in his remarkable performance at Syracuse and Friday night in the second half against UMBC.
“I said after the [UMBC] game, it’s my job to get Kevin more shots,” Turgeon said. “They’re going to key on him now because Justin was an explosive guy….Kevin’s so unselfish, just getting the ball in his hands or coming off screens or different things, that won’t just open it up for him, it’ll open it up for his teammates. I think Kevin’s ready for that next step.”
But he has to go into every game looking to score early and, if successful, should help open things up for Fernando and Michal Cekovsky inside.
The balance between being a scorer and playmaker is a little trickier for Cowan, but he has showed an ability to do both. The Terps can’t afford Cowan wearing down given that he and Huerter will likely have to play 35 minutes or more on a regular basis.
Maryland has to get a couple of signature wins.
Because of a few missed opportunities so far — none bigger than losing to Purdue at home in the Big Ten opener Dec. 1 — the Terps have to build their NCAA tournament resume almost solely on what they do the next two months, although Butler’s win over No. 1 Villanova on Saturday certainly helped.
Realistically, the best chances for resume-building wins should come in home games against Minnesota on Jan. 18 and Michigan State on Jan. 28. It still might not be enough unless Maryland gets to double-digit conference wins.
What helped Maryland’s NCAA resume last year was winning on the road, something the Terps did with an impressive 7-2 record away from Xfinity Center. Doing the same thing this year could be tougher. Winning at home, which was a problem last season (5-4), is a must.
Three things that could do wrong and cause the Terps to miss the NCAA tournament for the first time in four years:
Turnovers continue to be a problem.
Even if Jackson and Bender were healthy, Maryland wasn’t going to the NCAA tournament if its season-long problem with turnovers continued into the Big Ten. Maryland goes into Tuesday’s game against Penn State averaging 16.5 turnovers, last in the Big Ten and near the bottom (339th) in the country.
The only reason why the Terps won at Illinois in overtime Dec. 3 despite committing 25 turnovers — the third most under Turgeon — was that the Illini couldn’t close the game in regulation.
It would be one thing if it was mostly Maryland’s big men who had a majority of the turnovers, but the biggest culprits have been Cowan, Huerter and Morsell.
If the guards, especially Cowan and Huerter, can’t cut down on their turnovers — many of them seemingly unforced — it’s going to be a long two months for the Terps.
Turgeon can’t get enough out of those replacing Jackson and Bender.
The versatility of Jackson and Bender could be difficult for the Terps to replicate.
Jackson played both forward positions and could even play center in a pinch. Bender’s ability to pass inside is something that neither Fernando nor Cekovsky has shown on a regular basis.
The only true power forward left is inexperienced redshirt freshman Joshua Tomaic. Though Tomaic passes the eye test at 6-9, 220 pounds, he hasn’t been given much of a chance.
Tomaic gave Maryland some hope when he finished with nine points and six rebounds against Gardner-Webb, then had seven points and eight rebounds against Division-III Catholic.
But in 15 minutes against Fairleigh Dickinson on Dec. 21, Tomaic went scoreless and had just one rebound. The only two shots he tried were 3-pointers that weren’t close, and he also had two turnovers.
Turgeon said he is considering playing Fernando and Cekovsky together, which would put Fernando at power forward, a position he played a lot in high school.
The only problem is that because of Cekovsky’s slow recovery in the preseason from ankle surgery last season, Fernando hasn’t learned the position at Maryland. It might be too much to ask now.
Without jinxing the Terps, or saying which players Turgeon could least afford to lose, it’s not out of the realm of possibility, given the injury problems that have hampered Maryland the past few years.
Neither Cekovsky nor graduate transfer Sean Obi have looked totally recovered from the injuries that cut short seasons in their careers. Dion Wiley also has never returned to the level he was playing at before tearing his meniscus before the 2015-16 season.
With only nine healthy scholarship players remaining — the Terps even lost popular walk-on Andrew Terrell Thursday for up to two months with torn ligaments in his ankle — Maryland is painfully thin right now.
An earlier version of this article gave the incorrect number of healthy scholarship players remaining. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.