From the moment he entered the game to a standing ovation from a portion of the crowd in Sunday’s 84-70 win over Bryant at Xfinity Center, Chol Marial became a big part of the storyline for the Maryland men’s basketball team. Here are three takeaways from his performance:
Marial hasn’t yet shown why he was one of the top high school players in the country three years ago, but certainly why he can be a difference-maker for the Terps.
Most expected the 7-foot-2 freshman from South Sudan to be rusty after such a long layoff against live competition, and there were a few moments of that in his 14-minute appearance. Still, there were many more signs that Marial’s contribution of six points, five rebounds, an assist and a blocked shot is just a tease.
His timing wasn’t there completely, particularly on the defensive end, when he either jumped too soon or too late trying to swat away a few layups by the Bulldogs. He caught his entry passes cleanly for the most part, but there were a couple of times when he was moving a little too fast and dropped or lost the ball.
But along with his three dunks, Marial’s athleticism was impressive in how effortlessly he ran the floor. He might have had a couple of more throwdowns if his teammates were a little more effective in delivering the ball at the right time or at the right height for him to finish.
Marial didn’t attempt an outside shot or 3-pointer, but those who have watched him play during his workouts before starting full practices a few weeks ago have seen him make those with regularity and great form, especially for a big man.
And while he only blocked one shot — coming from the weak side to help when Bryant guard Benson Lin broke free for what looked like an easy layup — the sight of Marial lurking caused the Bulldogs to think twice about when, where or even if they wanted to shoot.
What was also impressive is that Marial didn’t try to block everything, as Bruno Fernando seemed to do as a freshman, meaning that opponents probably won’t get as many easy, uncontested follows as they did with Fernando early in his career or with Damonte Dodd for most of his four years in College Park.
Marial could help the Terps become a better 3-point shooting team, even without taking many of them.
Maryland made seven of 14 from long distance, the fewest Turgeon’s team has attempted and by far the highest percentage they’ve made this season. Given that Bryant played a zone for much of the game, that says a lot about the patience the Terps showed trying to work the ball inside against the smaller Bulldogs.
It also might say something about what happens when a defense has to account for a 7-footer who is a threat to score himself.
That happened the past two seasons when the Terps shot at a higher percentage with Fernando down low. Not only do the other players get cleaner looks with those guarding them sagging to help inside, but his teammates know there’s a good chance that Marial can either flush their misses or pull down an offensive rebound to give the team a fresh shot clock.
Asked if it takes some pressure off a team that came into Sunday’s game shooting just 31.2% on its 3-pointers, sophomore wing Aaron Wiggins said: “I wouldn’t say it takes pressure off guys, but of course knowing that you have somebody down there like that who’s 7-2 going to grab every rebound and be there for your putbacks close around the rim is always a positive for a team. I think a lot more guys are maybe a little more confident in the shots they take, being willing to take those shots."
Marial made the departure of the Mitchell twins an afterthought, as hard as their mother tried to make it part of the narrative.
When news came out Friday that freshman big men Makhi and Makhel Mitchell had put their names in the NCAA transfer portal and had left the team, there was a question about how the Terps were going to overcome the loss of two of their most physical inside players.
Though the question probably won’t start to be answered until Maryland resumes its Big Ten schedule Saturday against Indiana — with an even bigger indication coming three days later when Ohio State and 255-pound center Kaleb Wesson come to Xfinity Center — the first impression is that they won’t be missed much.
In one of several tweets, Maria Mitchell accused Turgeon of “railroading” her sons off the team because he wanted to find minutes for Marial. Truth is, they might have been even more frustrated had they been on the bench Sunday watching what Marial was doing.
There’s a story going back a quarter-century at Maryland that after Joe Smith played his first pickup game with his new team after arriving in the summer of 1994, sophomore center Nemanja Petrović packed his bags and left campus the next day and transferred.
This is not to say that Marial is going to be the second coming of Smith, but at least one of the Mitchell brothers, Makhel, was likely to see the handful of minutes he was getting disappear and Makhi, depending on the opponent, might have had the same outcome.
The best thing Maria Mitchell can do now is get off social media and air her grievances with Turgeon. How many other coaches will take her sons knowing that the first time things don’t go their way, their mother is going to start tweeting?