Maryland's Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith present a tall order for Big Ten defenses

One is a 6-foot-10 Angolan who outgrew soccer early in his teenage years and came to the United States in high school to hone his basketball skills.

The other is a 6-foot-10 Baltimorean who pledged early in his high school career at Mount Saint Joseph that he was coming to Maryland — and lived up to his promise.

Together, Maryland sophomore center Bruno Fernando and freshman forward Jalen Smith are quickly becoming the best combination of big men in the Big Ten this season.

Speaking on his radio show Monday night, Purdue coach Matt Painter said of the Terps, “They have an NBA frontline.”

Fernando and Smith will present the same kind of challenge to the Boilermakers on Thursday night at Mackey Arena that Purdue’s opponents faced in recent seasons.

After watching others contend with Purdue’s Isaac Haas, Caleb Swanigan and A.J. Hammons the past few years, the Boilermakers will now have to stop Maryland’s bigs.

Though Fernando and Smith have played well together against lesser opponents earlier this season, the chemistry seemed to build during a 66-59 home win over Penn State on Saturday.

Not only did both have solid outings — Smith scored 16 points and grabbed eight rebounds, and Fernando had his third straight double double with 12 points and 13 rebounds — but they played well off each other.

It was an improvement over last week’s 76-71 loss to then-No. 4 Virginia, when Fernando carried the Terps in the first half — scoring 10 of his 14 points to go along with 13 rebounds — but Smith wasn’t much of a factor, finishing with just six points and five rebounds.

“Me and him, we’re still trying to figure out a lot of things,” Fernando said that night. “How to be on the court at the same time against a team like that, we’ve obviously got to play better. It’s a process and we’re going to take it one day at a time.”

Asked about their growing on-court chemistry, Smith said Tuesday: “It’s been developing since the offseason. Me and Bruno have been playing a lot together.

“We’re just pretty much still learning about each other, learning what each other likes to do and what we don’t like to do, just building off of that.”

It’s been perhaps a bigger adjustment for Smith, who said he had never played before with someone bigger than him.

Not that it’s a bad thing, given how physical he is with his skinny but quickly growing 215-pound frame from which his long-standing nickname, “Stix”, was derived.

“It makes things easier because in high school I usually had a high-scoring load on myself,” Smith said. “Now I can focus on my defense, and let my offense come to me.”

That was certainly evident against Penn State, when Smith was matched up against Lamar Stevens, a 6-8, 230-pound junior known more for bullying his way in the post rather than burying jump shots from the perimeter.

Stevens finished with 19 points, but needed 24 shots to do. A lot of it had to do with an adjustment Smith made in the second half, when he played off Stevens a little bit and forced him to shoot outside.

“I thought as the game went on he got better [defensively],” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said of Smith on Tuesday. “I think he followed the scouting report, which is huge. He took away some strengths of that kid and used his length to do that.”

Smith said after the Penn State game that playing perimeter defense is the biggest part of the transition from high school.

“In high school, I never really had to guard on the perimeter that much. Guarding on the perimeter is a hassle,” said Smith, who has worked on his foot speed with the team’s performance coaches, as well as defending Maryland’s guards in practice drills. “It’s just something new to learn to add to my game.”

With many of Maryland’s Big Ten opponents trying to minimize the size differential up front by forcing Smith to get out on the floor and guard 3-point shooters — as he will have to do against the Boilermakers — Turgeon hopes that the former McDonald’s All American is up to the challenge.

“Can he get through screens and be out there on shooters? That’s asking a lot out of him,” Turgeon said. “But for us to get where we want to be, he needs to do that because I’d like to stay a big lineup as much as we can because I think offensively we’re pretty good and we’re hard to guard in that lineup.”

Fernando, who is averaging 15.4 points and 10 rebounds and is tied for the league lead with 2.3 blocks a game, is shooting a league-best 73.1 percent from the field. Smith, who is averaging 12.6 points and 7.3 rebounds, is shooting 53.5 percent.

Freshman point guard Eric Ayala, who followed Fernando to IMG Academy for a post-graduate prep year, said after last week’s loss to the Cavaliers in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge: “Bruno’s a monster. He’s plugged in every game. I wouldn’t want to have any other big man in the country behind me.”

An NBA scout who has seen Maryland play this season said that the Terps will go as far as their two big men ”will carry them.”

The complementary skills in their games is a plus, the scout said.

“Bruno is a physical specimen who will dominate less physical players, [but] he’ll always be solid,” said the scout, who asked to remain anonymous. “My assessment of him is he’s sort of like Emeka Okafor was in college.

“He’s a rebounder first, he can block shots and he protects the rim physically, and if you throw the ball into him, he’ll get you some baskets. He’s just not a player you run your offense through.”

According to the scout, the upside on Smith is higher.

“He’s got to grow into his body.” the scout said. “He has a natural-looking shot, he’s got pretty good offensive instincts. He’s just got to learn to play and collect on that length he has.

“He’s got to figure out how to play the college game when he’s getting beat around a little bit. He figured out how to guard the kid Lamar Stevens. He got better as the game went on, play after play.”

The scout said that Smith’s adjustment in the second half defensively “showed to me that he’s a basketball player. He’s agile enough to create a good matchup against a guy who may be smaller. “

Simply from a defensive and rebounding standpoint, Fernando and Smith are much more of a force than Robert Carter Jr. and Diamond Stone were in 2015-16. A redshirt junior, Carter averaged 12.3 points, a team-high 6.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game. A freshman, who like Smith was a McDonald’s All American, Stone averaged 12.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and a team-high 1.6 blocks.

“These guys are getting better at feeding off each other and recognizing mismatches, when one goes low and one goes high. It’s been a process for us,” Turgeon said. “I think that Bruno has really accepted doing what he needs to do to be successful for and it shows the way he’s playing.

“And right now physically, in some games it’s easier for ‘Stix’ to be on the perimeter [than] to be down low, but the other day he showed some signs, the other day and in the Virginia game, of being physical. … Luckily for me, they both like to be down there. … they know it’s an important part of the game.”

don.markus@baltsun.com

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