The Maryland men’s basketball team did what it was expected to do against an outmatched opponent when it throttled Division II Wingate, 100-58, on Friday afternoon at the Xfinity Center in College Park.
But there is a cautionary tale in this. The matchup against the Bulldogs was hastily arranged after a home game Saturday against Big Ten rival Nebraska was postponed because of coronavirus issues among the Cornhuskers.
The last time Maryland (8-6, 2-5 Big Ten) squared off against a nonconference opponent in the midst of its Big Ten season, the 2015-16 squad blasted Division II Bowie State, 93-62, on Feb. 9, 2016. It then lost four of its next six games to close the regular season, tumbled from No. 2 in the rankings to No. 18, and was bounced from the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament by Michigan State before falling to Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament.
Here are three takeaways from the Terps’ victory Friday:
The offense lacks a single go-to player — and that’s fine.
In the Terps’ past six games, four players have ended up leading them in scoring.
Junior point guard Eric Ayala paced the offense in a 70-64 upset of No. 9 Wisconsin on Dec. 28; sophomore small forward Donta Scott in an 84-73 loss to No. 7 Michigan on New Year’s Eve; junior shooting guard Aaron Wiggins in a 63-55 setback at Indiana on Jan. 4 and in an 89-67 loss at No. 5 Iowa on Jan. 7; senior shooting guard Darryl Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph) in a 66-63 stunner against No. 14 Illinois on Sunday; and Wiggins again against the Bulldogs.
Wiggins has recently emerged as the straw that stirs the drink, averaging 18.0 points in his past four starts and 15.1 points in his past eight. He credited his production to staying active on the offensive end of the court.
“Getting into a little bit of a flow,” he said. “We’re moving the ball a lot better as a team, getting guys a lot of open shots, and when guys are getting open shots, it opens up the court for everybody. Just getting into a flow and staying aggressive is just one thing I’m trying to continue to do.”
Sure, it would be nice to have a Luke Garza of Iowa, an Ayo Dosunmu of Illinois or a Marcus Carr of Minnesota (the three leading scorers in the Big Ten), but Maryland seems to have found a comfort level with utilizing Wiggins, Scott, Morsell and/or Ayala as its offensive catalyst. The lack of an undisputed top weapon prevents opposing defenses from keying in on one player and does not force the Terps to rely on a single player to drive production.
“I love it,” Turgeon said of the team’s options on offense. “Those guys can do it for us, Eric Ayala can do it for us. We have the diversity you need to have a chance to beat some of the teams that we’ve got ahead of us.”
James Graham III and the Terps needed that game against Wingate.
Before Friday’s game, Graham did not play against Michigan per Turgeon’s decision, had more turnovers (two) than combined points (zero) against Indiana and Iowa, and did not get off the bench against Illinois.
But against the Bulldogs, Graham scored a career-best 10 points and grabbed four rebounds largely in the second half when the outcome was pretty much determined. Still, Turgeon hopes the experience helps the Class of 2021 recruit gain some semblance of confidence.
“Offensively, he was terrific,” Turgeon said. “He for the most part took good shots. I thought a couple of them were early, but he can shoot it. And he can really pass. He knows how to play. Right now, his head is just spinning. And then I thought he defensive-rebounded well. He’s long, and he really defensive-rebounded well. The other parts of the game, you’ve got a ways to go. But I said yesterday, what we’re doing to him is almost impossible, to come in after Christmas as a 17-year-old kid. So I think offensively, we all got a little bit more confidence with him. I think defensively is where he’s got to go a long ways for us to really trust him in these Big Ten games.”
Graham was part of a bench unit that combined for 35 points and logged considerable minutes (21 minutes for freshman point guard Aquan Smart and 20 for junior small forward Jairus Hamilton on the high end). That is a refreshing change of pace for a starting lineup that entered the game averaging almost 29 minutes per game.
“It helps us a lot just because a lot of guys were able to get into the rotation and be able to keep us guys out of a heavy rotation,” said senior power forward Galin Smith, who finished with 13 points and four rebounds in less than 12 minutes of play. “I feel like it was good for us to play this game so that we can be able to prepare for the next one.”
Eric Ayala’s return from a groin injury would be significant.
Turgeon gave Maryland fans a glimmer of hope regarding Tuesday night’s game at Michigan when said after Friday’s win that Ayala could return from a two-game absence caused by a groin injury he initially suffered against Purdue on Christmas Day and aggravated against Iowa.
Turgeon emphasized that Ayala, who is still the team’s leading scorer at 14.0 points per game, has to clear a few hurdles at practice — mainly movement and running drills — before he will throw the guard out there.
“If everything goes well, we plan on playing him Tuesday night,” Turgeon said. “It’s a tough injury. So we’ll see.”
Sophomore Hakim Hart has played well in Ayala’s place. He had nine points and zero turnovers in the upset at Illinois and 11 points, a team-best six assists and zero turnovers against Wingate.
But Ayala is a more seasoned veteran who racked up 16 points, three assists and one turnover in the first meeting against the Wolverines (11-1, 6-1) — who lost for the first time this season Saturday, 75-57 to No. 23 Minnesota — and the chances of shocking them would increase if Ayala was back in his usual position.
“It would benefit us a lot,” Wiggins said of his backcourt mate’s potential return. “He adds to the game with his scoring ability and his playmaking ability, and we need him as a leader both on the court and off the court. His talent makes our team a lot better. So I hope he’s ready to go.”