In its first two Big Ten games this season, the Maryland men’s basketball team showed both how promising and precocious it was, winning a game it could have lost at home to Penn State on Dec. 1 and losing a game it could have won at Purdue.
What was apparent in both games was that Maryland’s freshman class — ranked No. 1 in the Big Ten and No. 7 in the country — was not collectively ready to contribute on a nightly basis.
Going into the restart of the league schedule Wednesday at home against No. 24 Nebraska, Maryland coach Mark Turgeon seems more confident and comfortable with the group than he was a month ago.
“I think the Virginia game [a 76-71 loss to the then-No. 4 Cavaliers Nov. 28], they clearly were not ready for that one,” Turgeon said after a 78-74 victory Saturday over Radford, his team’s final non-conference game this season.
“Stix [Jalen Smith] struggled a little bit in that game, he’s gotten a lot better. Eric Ayala was probably the only one that was ready for that game. The rest of them have really grown. … We feel good where our young kids are and how well they’re playing.”
Despite the improvement Turgeon sees in Smith, the play of the former Mount Saint Joseph star and McDonald’s All-American has fluctuated, at times wildly. It was evidenced by the 6-foot-10 forward getting into early foul trouble and scoring just one point in a win over Loyola of Chicago in Baltimore, then scoring a career-high 20 two nights later against Loyola of Maryland at Xfinity Center.
Ayala, who finished with 13 points against Virginia, went through a three-game stretch when his production and shooting fell off, including averaging just five points and missing 9 of 12 shots against Penn State and Purdue. He has since been the steadiest of the freshmen, averaging a shade over 13 points and shooting 50 percent in the last three games.
Turgeon was also encouraged in Saturday’s win over Radford — an NCAA tournament team a year ago that had already beaten then-No. 17 Texas and Notre Dame on the road this season — by the play of freshmen forward Ricky Lindo Jr., who, with Smith sitting out because of an illness, finished with a season-high 10 rebounds to go along with eight points and two blocked shots.
Wing Aaron Wiggins and shooting guard Serrel Smith Jr. also played well in spurts against Radford, helping the Terps erase an early nine-point deficit and then being part of the 31-12 run in the second half that broke open the game. Wiggins hit 3 of 4 on 3-pointers in the second half, and the Terps outscored Radford by 13 points in Smith’s 19 minutes, which tied his season-high.
“You have to give them credit, they work extremely hard every day at practice,” sophomore center Bruno Fernando, who finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds against Radford, said of the freshmen. “It’s always good to see a guy stepping up when one was down. Jalen obviously didn’t play for us tonight. Having Ricky coming in, you got to give him a lot of credit, his being able to rebound and help me on the boards boxing out.”
Asked how much more comfortable he feels now than he did going into the first two Big Ten games, Lindo said, “I feel a lot more comfortable. Like I always say, just knowing that Coach Turgeon trusts me keeps my confidence up. And the fact that even if I have a bad game, he still believes in me, tells me, ‘Good job, Ricky, just keep playing hard.’”
Turgeon knows that his freshmen, both individually and as a group, need to continue to grow.
After his team's 78-74 loss to Seton Hall on Dec. 22, Turgeon said that Anthony Cowan Jr. needed more help, especially late in close games. Much of it will come from Ayala in terms of taking control of the offense as the point guard. Some of it will also come from Wiggins giving the Terps another scorer and Jalen Smith complementing Fernando inside.
Speaking specifically of Ayala, Turgeon said before the Radford game, “It’s got to be kind of a trust thing as we move forward, and allowing him to do that. I’m not talking about trust from the coaches, but on the floor. When a play breaks down going into ball screen action, to get space when he has it and let him make plays for other people."
Turgeon would also like to see the 6-6 Wiggins use his length and athleticism to drive more rather than settle for 3-point shots. Wiggins did that a little more against Radford, but still remains one of Maryland’s biggest threats when opponents double-team either Jalen Smith or Fernando inside.
“We need Aaron to be more aggressive,” Turgeon said last week. “If he’s more aggressive, it opens up a lot for other people. That’s kind of been my message to him, both ends of the floor, be more aggressive. Doesn’t mean he has to shoot. He can make plays for other people, too.”
What could help Maryland’s learning curve is that all of the freshmen — from starters Jalen Smith and Ayala to rotation players Wiggins, Lindo and Serrel Smith — appear to have the emotional maturity to handle their roles.
Still, it’s a process that won’t necessarily be without more bumps along the way.
Asked what he knows now that he wishes he knew earlier in the season, Ayala said, “I wouldn’t take anything back. Everything’s been a learning experience. The losses we took, even the wins. Now we just want to keep improving on ourselves and our team.”
Though they weren’t part of Maryland’s disappointing 19-13 season a year ago, the freshmen are fully entrenched in the team’s mindset going back into the Big Ten schedule.
“We’ve got goals of being the most-improved team in the Big Ten this year,” Ayala said last week. “I think we’re very capable of that. Just learning every day. One day at a time. Just growing. Us freshmen, we’ve got to step up and be more consistent.”