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Sizing up Purdue, Maryland might go to big men in its Big Ten men's basketball opener

For most of Maryland’s first three years in the Big Ten, men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon has often gone small, using three-guard lineups to take advantage of his team’s biggest strength — its perimeter scoring.

In opening the Big Ten schedule for the 2017-18 season against Purdue on Friday night at Xfinity Center, Turgeon might be considering going big to use what is quickly becoming apparent: Freshman center Bruno Fernando is going to be a monster.

While the 6-foot-10, 245-pound Angolan has not yet had the kind of scoring burst Diamond Stone did in his Big Ten debut two years ago against Penn State — a freshman school record 39 points — Fernando has had his moments of dominance.

“Did I think Bruno was going to be this far along? No," Turgeon said Thursday. “I knew he was a good player. Especially if you told me he was going to sprain his ankle and be out three weeks of practice. He’s really coming fast.

“Defensively, he’s in the right position. He’s getting better with all the technique. Offensively, it still at times moves too quickly for him. But he’s getting better with that. He’s learning all the plays and different things. I knew he was going to be good, but he’s been a pleasant surprise.”

About the only thing that has stopped Fernando from putting up even bigger numbers than the 10.4 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.4 blocks next to his name has been foul trouble, most recently in Maryland’s 72-70 loss at Syracuse on Monday night in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

Despite playing only 19 minutes at the Carrier Dome, Fernando finished with 13 points, four rebounds and three blocked shots. Most of the damage was done before he picked up his fourth foul with 6:55 left and the Terps up 59-56.

“For him it’s just staying out of foul trouble,” said sophomore guard Kevin Huerter, who scored a season-high 23 points against the Orange. “I actually rewatched the Syracuse game for the first time [Wednesday] and a lot of his fouls are not always his fault. For a guy like him who’s so big and so strong, he doesn’t realize how big and strong he is.

“He sometimes can make fouls that for him he’s like, ‘I’m barely touching the guy.’ Also being a big center, someone who’s dominant and so physically imposing, the refs may look for him to call more fouls on him. We need him in the game as much as he can be.”

In Maryland’s four meetings with the Boilermakers since joining the Big Ten, big men have figured prominently in the outcome.

The first year, in 2014-15, the Terps had trouble dealing with 7-0 senior A.J. Hammons and 7-2, 290-pound freshman Isaac Haas. Damonte Dodd was in foul trouble after picking up two personals in the first 56 seconds.

Despite senior forward Jon Graham giving up 8 inches and 70 pounds to Purdue’s humongous center, Maryland won, 69-60.

After the teams split games in 2015-16 — with Robert Carter Jr. helping the Terps win at home and Haas taking over in West Lafayette, Ind., later in the season — last year’s game came down to Maryland not having anyone to handle sophomore forward Caleb Swanigan.

Swanigan, who would become the Big Ten’s runaway Player of the Year, finished with 26 points and 10 rebounds in a 73-72 victory by the No. 23 Boilermakers over the No. 17 Terps.

With Haas and 7-1 Maryland senior center Michal Cekovsky renewing their battle — Cekovsky had 10 points and a career-high six blocks last year — Fernando and freshman Matt Haarms of Purdue will be entering the fray Friday.

It could be an interesting matchup between Fernando and the 7-3, 250-pound player from the Netherlands, especially if Purdue coach Matt Painter decides to play Haarms and Haas together, as he often did with Haas and Swanigan, as well as sometimes with Haas and Hammons.

“Those two are big and they’re both good,” Turgeon said of the big men for the Boilermakers. “Haas has had a tremendous career and he’s gotten better every year and he’s passing the ball better this year. It creates problems.

“What makes those two really good is that they have four really good players around ’em. Guys that can make shots, they’re shooting incredible from the 3-point line. They’re really hard to guard, and Matt’s a terrific coach. And they run good stuff. They’re a really good team.”

Asked whether he’d consider playing Cekovsky and Fernando together if Painter pairs Haas with Haarms, Turgeon said he doesn’t think it will come to that.

“They haven’t shown that a lot. I don’t anticipate them doing them doing that,” Turgeon said. “I don’t know who my big guys would be, but I probably wouldn’t stay small if they did that.”

Painter played his two 7-footers together longer in the second half of Tuesday night’s 66-57 win over No. 17 Louisville — about eight minutes — than he had all season to counter the length of the Cardinals inside.

“I thought Matt Haarms really helped us from a defensive standpoint, how they bother you with their length, I thought he bothered some people,” Painter said after the game. “Not necessarily always getting a blocked shot, but also changing some shots and just being around the ball.”

Cekovky and reserve forward Ivan Bender jokingly refer to Haas as “a dentist, he always uses his elbows and stuff. … Yeah, he ‘s huge. We’re going to take on that challenge. We’re excited.”

A year after not having a player with Fernando’s size, strength and athleticism up front, Cekovsky said the Terps are better equipped to handle Haas than in the past.

“It definitely helps. We have bigger size with Bruno, Sean [Obi, a 6-9, 250-pound graduate transfer],” Cekovsky said. “We are so much bigger team than we were last year. With me, too, Ivan. They also have to guard us. It definitely helps having these pieces.”

don.markus@baltsun.com

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