Two years ago, Maryland came to Mackey Arena with a team in the middle of a late-season slide that had begun a couple of weeks before with back-to-back Big Ten losses to Wisconsin and then-winless Minnesota.
As Mark Turgeon sat at the podium after an 83-79 loss to the No. 20 Boilermakers, the Maryland coach was disappointed with the effort of his 10th-ranked team, especially with one area in particular.
The Terps had as many total rebounds as Purdue had defensive rebounds and had been crushed on the boards, 41-22. It was part of a disturbing trend that year, especially by big men Diamond Stone and Robert Carter Jr.
As Turgeon sat at the same podium after Wednesday’s loss to the No. 3 Boilermakers, his mood was much different.
“You don’t get a participation certificate, but we’re getting better,” he said.
Despite making the trip without 7-foot-1 senior center Michal Cekovsky, who injured the heel on his left foot in practice Tuesday, Maryland outrebounded the bigger, older, stronger and taller Boilermakers, 33-32.
Despite sophomore point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. playing with his right hand bandaged to protect an unspecified injury, the Terps overcame 11 first-half turnovers and finished the game with 14. Cowan also had a game-high eight assists.
Despite having only six healthy scholarship players for most of the second half after redshirt junior guard Dion Wiley turned his ankle and graduate center Sean Obi fouled out playing just seven minutes, the Terps were in the game until the end.
Here are some observations and opinions from Maryland’s 75-67 loss:
Maryland’s depth problems are not just in the frontcourt.
Much has been made of the season-ending injuries to forwards Justin Jackson (torn labrum in his shoulder) and Ivan Bender (torn meniscus). Cekovsky’s injury might wind up with the same result, pending a CAT scan Thursday.
The lack of bigger bodies was only magnified by the lack of production behind freshman Bruno Fernando, who had a monster game (20 points, 10 rebounds) against Purdue’s 7-2, 290-pound monster, senior center Isaac Haas.
Redshirt freshman Joshua Tomaic was giving up at least 60 pounds to Haas and had no idea how to play him, finishing with no points or rebounds in 12 minutes. Obi got two rebounds, but seemed to be called for a foul every time he touched anyone.
This is going to be a big problem for the Terps if Cekovsky doesn’t return to finish out his career, or if Fernando turns one of his ankles again or can’t play through foul trouble, as he did well Wednesday.
But Maryland’s depth problems also extend to the backcourt.
Cowan has virtually no backup (39 minutes against Purdue). Even before he got hurt, Wiley contributed little (one rebound, one assist in 24 minutes) and senior wing Jared Nickens has never really figured out how to do much beyond shoot 3-pointers.
Given the stretch of winnable games the rest of the regular season, starting Sunday at home against Wisconsin, Cowan and sophomore guard Kevin Huerter are going to need help for the Terps to finish strong before the Big Ten tournament.
Maryland’s second-half offense.
Turgeon said after the game that his team’s offense in the second half was the best that it’s been in a while.
Though he must have already erased the memory of the way the Terps played in the first half against then-No. 6 Michigan State on Sunday, as well as at then-No. 23 Michigan on Jan. 15, the point was obvious.
When the offense is moving and Cowan is trying to get others involved (eight assists), Maryland can play with anybody in the Big Ten. Not only did the Terps commit just three turnovers in the second half, they also had 13 of their 18 assists.
What was most promising was how Fernando and fellow freshman Darryl Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph) are starting to expand their games, which will eventually open things up for both Cowan and Huerter.
Fernando, who finished 8-for-12 shooting, knocked down a couple of pull-up, mid-range jumpers that made him tougher to guard inside. Morsell, who finished with 13 points on 6-for-10 shooting, was more patient getting in the lane.
If these two promising players can do that more often in the next five weeks, the critics who say Turgeon’s offense is often stagnant and easy to defend will have to figure out something else to get upset about.
It doesn’t get the same hype as Indiana’s Assembly Hall or Michigan State’s Breslin Center, but Mackey Arena remains one of the best venues to experience a college basketball game — playing, watching or covering.
The fans are not just passionate but respectful and knowledgeable. It’s much more a Midwest feel than it is in Bloomington, Ind., where because so many students are from the East, there’s more of the nastiness of, well, the Xfinity Center.
While the arena has had more than a couple of facelifts over the years, the ghost of John Wooden, a three-time All-American at Purdue nearly 90 years ago, remains a strong presence throughout the building.
The last time Maryland played at Duke before leaving the Atlantic Coast Conference — the game the Terps lost when Charles Mitchell couldn’t hit two gimmes in the closing seconds and the Blue Devils benefited from a possession arrow mistake — the fans were utterly obnoxious.
I tweeted that night "Get me to Mackey Arena,” not ever having stepped foot in the building. Three trips in, it’s right up there with all the great venues Maryland has played at over the years, maybe at the top.
Here’s hoping that the Terps are scheduled to come back next year … and the year after.