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Maryland men’s basketball learning hard way about value of size in the paint

No one needs to remind Maryland coach Mark Turgeon that size is a premium in men’s basketball.

In the Big Ten alone, Maryland has struggled against the likes of Rutgers 6-foot-11 junior center Myles Johnson (10 points and 16 rebounds), Purdue 6-10 junior forward Trevion Williams (10 points and eight rebounds), Michigan 7-1 freshman center Hunter Dickinson (26 points and 11 rebounds), Indiana 6-9 sophomore forward Trayce Jackson-Davis (22 points and 15 rebounds), and Iowa 6-11 senior center Luke Garza (24 points and seven rebounds.

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And Sunday night, the Terps (6-6, 1-5 Big Ten) will tangle with No. 12 Illinois (9-3, 5-1) and 7-foot sophomore center Kofi Cockburn. It’s a daunting task for a team that is mired in a three-game losing streak and that has dropped four of its past five games.

“If you think about it, from Purdue to Wisconsin to Michigan to Indiana’s five man to Luke Garza and this kid, it’s just not a good year to be small,” Turgeon said Saturday afternoon. “Normally we’re big and long and athletic around the rim, but we’re not this year. So it is what it is. It’s bad timing for us.”

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Maryland’s lack of a low-post presence has been especially glaring in losses to No. 10 Michigan on Dec. 31, Indiana on Monday and No. 5 Iowa on Thursday.

Dickinson and 6-9 sophomore guard Franz Wagner helped the Wolverines outscore the Terps, 42-22, in the paint and convert 18 of 20 free throws compared to four of six for Maryland en route to an 84-73 victory.

Jackson-Davis and 6-8 redshirt junior forward Race Thompson assisted the Hoosiers in owning a 36-24 advantage in the paint, winning the rebounding battle, 43-33, and outscoring the Terps, 14-4, on second-chance opportunities.

Finally, Garza, 6-8 freshman forward Keegan Murray and 6-9 redshirt freshman forward Patrick McCaffery combined to help the Hawkeyes outscore Maryland, 44-16, in the paint and finish with a plus-5 edge in rebounds.

Unfortunately for Turgeon and the program, neither Bruno Fernando nor Jalen Smith are walking through any doors.

“We’re a different team than with Bruno here and with Stix [Smith’s nickname] here,” Turgeon said. “We’re different, but I think we’re getting closer with how we have to play to be successful.”

Sophomore forward Donta Scott, who leads the Terps in rebounding (7.3) and ranks second in scoring (12.9), is the team’s most consistent presence in the frontcourt, but stands only 6-7. Junior forward Jairus Hamilton, who is 6-8, is more of a wing player, and 6-9 senior forward Galin Smith’s production and playing time have waned since a seven-point, five-rebound showing in a 74-60 loss to No. 15 Rutgers on Dec. 14.

After dismissing a question about whether 7-2 sophomore center Chol Mariol could have made a difference in the loss at Iowa in a postgame conference that night, Turgeon said Saturday that Mariol would be counted on to try to contain Cockburn, who leads the Fighting Illini is rebounding (10.1) and ranks second in scoring (17.0).

“There’s just not many humans on earth that are like that and that skilled,” Turgeon said of Cockburn. “It’s a load, especially for this year’s team. It’s a load for us. We’ve got a few different ways we can try to help our centers out the best we can. … We’ll play Chol tomorrow, and hopefully, he plays well, and hopefully his length can do a good job in there for us.”

With Cockburn, Illinois ranks second among all Division I teams in rebounding margin of plus-13.2. Maryland ranks 172nd at plus-1.2, which would seem to punctuate the need for the guards to hang back a little longer on defense for long rebounds. But senior shooting guard Darryl Morsell said that has long been a point of emphasis.

“As team, we always try to preach finishing every possession with a rebound,” the Baltimore resident and Mount St. Joseph graduate said. “So whether that’s a big getting a rebound or a guard coming back into a play to get the rebound, we know how important it is against teams in this conference to finish every possession. If you give up too many offensive rebounds, that score can change real quick. So we’re just challenging each other as a team. The guards are challenging each other to get rebounds and stuff like that because it’s going to be necessary for us to be successful.”

The lack of a consistent presence in the post also affects the offense, putting an onus on the perimeter players to be more efficient with their shots and more judicious with their shot selection. Since shooting 48.3% in the loss to Michigan, the Terps have shot 38.5%t at Indiana (including 28.0% from 3-point range) and 43.3% at Iowa (including 34.3% from behind the arc).

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But Turgeon said the offense was not the culprit in Thursday’s setback to the Hawkeyes.

“We just turned the ball over way too much the other night,” he said, referring to the team’s 16 giveaways. “We had a lot of good looks. We shot probably five bad shots, which is too many and one was right after a timeout. So we’ve just got to keep figuring it out, keep getting better, make guys better, but we feel like that’s heading in the right direction, and we’re getting good looks. We had a lot of really good looks the other night that we didn’t make. It was just the turnovers that killed us.”

Morsell insisted that even a small lineup can present problems for opposing defenses in terms of spacing and quickness. But he said Maryland can help itself by playing with a certain attitude.

“You’ve got to have a mindset that if you’re small, you’re already at a disadvantage, and if you’re at a disadvantage, you’ve got to give more if you want to win,” he said. “I think we have some guys that have that mindset and embody that character, playing with that chip on their shoulders and playing with that disadvantage. It’s just all got to come collective as a team.”

MARYLAND@NO. 12 ILLINOIS

Sunday, 8 p.m.

TV: BTN Radio: 105.7 FM

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