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Five things to look for as the No. 7 Maryland men’s basketball team begins the 2019-20 season

From Maryland’s starting lineup to how much coach Mark Turgeon will change his defense to how the team is handling its highest preseason ranking in four years, here are five things to watch as the No. 7 Terps start the 2019-20 season Tuesday night against Holy Cross.

The starting lineup might change early in the season.

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In Friday’s preseason game against Fayetteville State, Turgeon started junior Darryl Morsell, along with sophomores Eric Ayala, Aaron Wiggins, Jalen Smith and Ricky Lindo Jr.

Turgeon didn’t start Anthony Cowan Jr., and quickly rebuffed a question after the game that suggested that the senior point guard had been benched for some sort of indiscretion, adding that Cowan would start his 100th straight game Tuesday.

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If that is the case, who is the odd man out?

The bet here is that it will likely be Ayala, at least to start the season. Turgeon said after the game that doesn’t think the 6-foot-10, 225-pound Smith is totally comfortable as a post defender, which is why he moved him back to power forward for the second half. Either Lindo or freshman Makhi Mitchell, who’s further along than many expected, could share minutes in that role.

In reality, it probably won’t matter who Turgeon starts for most of his team’s nonconference games and he will likely adjust based on whatever defensive matchups he’ll need with certain opponents.

Ayala, who started every game as a freshman but one, also has the temperament to take what some might look at as a demotion and turn it into what will help the team even more. Ayala’s added quickness and athleticism that resulted from him losing close to 20 pounds in the offseason will make him a tougher matchup, especially for opposing teams’ backup point guards.

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As most coaches will tell you, it doesn’t matter who starts but who finishes, and that will depend on what the Terps need in a particular game, whether it’s 3-point shooting, a reliable free-throw shooter or a lockdown defender. There will probably be many games that Ayala finishes if he doesn’t start.

Donta Scott will be tough to keep off the court.

Both Scott and Mitchell had terrific debuts Friday.

Scott, a 6-7, 225-pound forward, had 10 points, five rebounds and two assists in 19 minutes. Mitchell, a 6-10, 235-pound center, finished with four points, eight rebounds and three blocks in 16 minutes. Along with Wiggins, Mitchell had the highest plus-minus (plus-24) on the team.

Scott, who also reportedly filled the stat sheet in Maryland’s secret scrimmage against Pittsburgh, not only showed his ability to get to the basket but also a surprising 3-point stroke, going 2-for-4 from beyond the arc.

According to Turgeon, Scott and Mitchell, as well as Mitchell’s twin brother, Makhel, give the Terps the kind of toughness they have lacked the past few seasons from most players aside from Morsell and Bruno Fernando.

Considering that Maryland has often had to play the 6-5, 200-pound Morsell as an undersized power forward, Scott can give the Terps some added bulk, especially in the Big Ten.

How often will the Terps switch out of their traditional man-to-man defense?

Hearing Turgeon talk at the recent fan event that included a 30-minute scrimmage, you would have thought that an alien basketball coach had taken over his body the way he talked about using a zone as part of his team’s defensive package and also employing multiple types of presses.

The Terps rolled out a 3/4 court press, and the 3-2 zone they used on a couple of occasions last season, against Fayetteville State in Friday’s exhibition. Cowan deflected a pass and scored immediately off the press, and the 3-2 zone worked well except for a couple of times when Maryland got beat on a backdoor lob.

While Turgeon doesn’t want to put too much on tape in the early portion of the season against teams the Terps can beat without switching defenses, you have to figure he’ll use it enough to get a read on whether he thinks both the press and the zone will work against a higher level of competition.

Given Maryland’s length — especially Lindo, who was particularly active in the zone getting his hands on balls and contesting shots — as well as the quickness they possess with guards like Cowan, Ayala, Morsell and sophomore reserve Serrel Smith Jr., Turgeon would be crazy not to listen to his alien alter ego.

Turgeon also has the team to play fast or slow.

Maryland’s depth not only gives Turgeon the luxury to press, it also will allow him to mix it up and play to whatever tempo he feels gives the Terps the best chance to win.

At Friday’s preseason game, Turgeon could be heard telling his team to play faster, which is something that seems as foreign to his philosophy as switching out of the man-to-man.

It’s for the same reason: He finally has a team that can run, from its point guards to its big men, with plenty in reserve.

Analytics alone should tell him that more possessions — as long as a team doesn’t commit a ridiculous amount of turnovers — usually translates to more points. Maryland should have more depth and possibly talent than almost every team it plays.

While it’s hard to gauge anything from scrimmaging a Division II team, a 15-to-6 assist-to-turnover ratio should be a good baseline figure from which to start the season.

Even when Maryland struggled a bit in the half-court Friday, the Terps didn’t seem to rush too many shots and didn’t seem to panic when the shot clock wound down.

Turgeon said it was difficult to get much of a rhythm using nine players between 11 minutes (Lindo) and 25 minutes (Wiggins) and two others, Makhel Mitchell and Hakim Hart, for eight each.

It’s almost guaranteed that Turgeon will start cutting minutes for several reserves, with Lindo and Morsell (17 minutes) playing more than they did Friday. More cohesiveness should follow.

This team seems more grounded and focused than the 2015-16 team when it comes to living up to the preseason ranking.

The comparisons to Turgeon’s only Sweet 16 team in his first eight years at Maryland will be a constant theme this season, but these Terps have a much different chemistry than the group four years ago. That team had a talented starting lineup, little to no bench and lot of eyes looking ahead to the NBA.

It’s a bit ironic that the only player who didn’t seem to care about scoring was senior forward Jake Layman, who is now the only one playing in the NBA. Layman attended Friday’s game with family members and friends since he was in town with the Minnesota Timberwolves, who played the Washington Wizards on Saturday.

Not only does this team have two players projected in the 2020 NBA draft — Jalen Smith and Wiggins — it also has a few others who could find their names on the lists of some NBA scouts if the season goes as many who’ve seen the Terps practice believe it will.

Yet at least by every outward appearance, or in what they say to the media, this team appears to be as selfless as they come. The four sophomores who play big roles seem to be the team’s anchor, both in terms of how they are respectful of players like Cowan and Morsell, as well as supportive of the freshmen.

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That will certainly allow Turgeon, who has never seemed that comfortable coaching with a target on his back, to have to worry less about the egos that helped conflict his team four years, including Diamond Stone, who left after that season and has hardly been heard from since.

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