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Whether Maryland men's basketball rebounds next season could rest on Bruno Fernando's decision

These are nervous, uncertain days in the men’s basketball offices at Maryland.

The disappointing 19-13 season is not yet a distant memory, particularly with a Michigan team the Terps nearly beat in Ann Arbor in mid-January before getting destroyed by at Xfinity Center on senior day playing for a national championship Monday night in San Antonio.

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Maryland’s roster reshuffling began last week, with news that forward Justin Jackson would forgo his final two years of NCAA eligibility after an injury-shortened sophomore season and that redshirt junior guard Dion Wiley would be transferring after graduating this spring.

The decision with the biggest impact — whether freshman center Bruno Fernando will return to College Park or turn pro — could affect not only Maryland’s 2018-19 season but also the much-debated future of coach Mark Turgeon.

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While the Terps appear well-stocked in the backcourt with the return of sophomores Anthony Cowan Jr. and Kevin Huerter, as well as freshman Darryl Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph), and the arrival of Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala, the frontcourt is in flux.

Since Jackson's departure will likely be offset by the arrival of Morsell’s former high school teammate, McDonald’s All American Jalen Smith, the biggest question surrounds Fernando, who showed signs of becoming a dominant force if he sticks around the college game.

There is much chatter about Fernando’s mindset these days. One of his teammates said last week that the 6-foot-10, 245-pound Fernando has been "talking a lot about agents.” Sources said he met with Turgeon last week, and the two are expected to meet again this week.

Turgeon will tell Fernando that he can declare for the NBA draft and go to the league’s scouting combine in Chicago in May and private workouts by teams without an agent, as guard Melo Trimble did as a sophomore and as Huerter and possibly Cowan could wind up doing themselves. The early-entry deadline is April 22, and college players without an agent have until 10 days after the combine (May 16–20) to withdraw from the pool. Those with an agent cannot play collegiately again.

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Though listed on Sports Illustrated’s “Big Board” as a late first-round pick (at No. 25) this year, Fernando is considered by most a surefire lottery pick in 2019, as high as the No. 2 player overall behind incoming Duke freshman R.J Barrett in one of them.

Former Maryland coach Lefty Driesell was one of the 13 new members introduced Saturday to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame for the Class of 2018.

Jackson’s decision to turn pro after missing more than half his sophomore year because of a torn labrum doesn’t make sense, unless you subscribe to the theory that his stock had already fallen precipitously amid his early-season shooting woes and could go down even more as a junior.

In truth, Jackson’s stock had dropped significantly despite a seemingly solid performance at last year’s combine. It wasn’t as much what the 6-7, 225-pound Canadian had done in the scrimmages as it was his lack of athleticism (including a 26-inch standing jump) and basketball IQ.

Jackson is seemingly destined to start his pro career in the G-League, or overseas, since his four-to-six month rehabilitation makes it highly unlikely he will be ready for either the combine (if he were to be invited) or individual team workouts before the late-June draft.

Fernando is a much different story.

NBA scouts who saw him play regularly last season envision Fernando as a prototypical new-age big man who can not only play above the rim, but also step out to shoot from the perimeter, which he did a little late in the year.

Here's what former players, coaches and those who know him are saying about Lefty Driesell’s entering the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

That he seems to have a high motor is also considered a big plus.

If Alex Len was the No. 5 player in the 2013 draft putting up similar numbers to Fernando in his two years at Maryland, you’d have to think some team is going to take a chance on Fernando late in the first round or early in the second round this year.

It’s difficult to convince any 19-year-old with Fernando’s obvious upside that he could make a lot more money next year if he returned as a sophomore. Just-elected Hall of Fame coach Lefty Driesell told that to Moses Malone back in 1974 and it didn’t work, with Malone jumping from high school to the pros.

Without Fernando, the Terps look a lot thinner in the frontcourt — both figuratively and literally.

As good a player as Smith is expected to become, there’s a good reason he is called “Stix.” Unless he can suddenly turn into the next Joe Smith — which is not a ridiculous notion given his meteoric rise the past year — the Terps will be undersized up front.

After being a finalist four times, former Maryland coach Lefty Driesell is expected to be part of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame's 2018 class.

Tariq Owens, the graduate transfer from St. John’s who visited Maryland last week, would certainly give the Terps a lot more than either L.G. Gill or Sean Obi provided the past two seasons. Built similarly (6-11, 205) to Jalen Smith (6-9, 195), Owens is an even better rim protector (2.8 blocks a game) than Fernando.

But in three seasons on the college level, Owens only had four double doubles, one more than Fernando had last season. The Terps showed signs of being a good rebounding team before Jackson and Ivan Bender got hurt, so losing Fernando in the middle would be significant in that area.

Still, even without Fernando, Maryland should have the talent to be an NCAA tournament team next season. The three top finishers in the Big Ten last season — Michigan State, Purdue and Michigan — will all be undergoing significant roster renovations.

But anything less than that — and possibly giving a better showing than the Round of 64 loss in 2016-17 — will continue to fire up the already disgruntled, and rapidly depleting, fan base when it comes to Turgeon, who still have five years left on his contract.

Next season seems a long way off, with the end of a disappointing 2017-18 season a little more than a month ago.

For now, the nervous and uncertain days in College Park continue.

Regardless of what Fernando decides, they might be for a while.

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