COLLEGE PARK — Maryland men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon has never been shy about playing — or starting — freshmen.
A year ago, Turgeon started two, Jalen Smith and Eric Ayala, used Aaron Wiggins as his sixth man and played Ricky Lindo Jr. and Serrel Smith Jr. in spots. A year after missing out on the postseason, the Terps went 23-11 and lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
It was the most freshmen Turgeon used in more than two decades as a Division I coach.
The difference between the way Turgeon used his freshmen in recent years and how he plans to use them this season is simple. A year ago, he had no choice but to play them. This season, he can be more selective and try to put them in position to be successful.
“The thing that’s great about this year’s team, if we continue to grow and get better and stay healthy, is I’m in control,” Turgeon said during media day Tuesday at Xfinity Center. “A guy doesn’t box out, he’s coming out. We have so much depth that they’re going to learn by sitting a little bit.
“The last couple of years, we had to play guys through mistakes, turnovers, there really wasn’t an answer. I think we’ll get better because of that, guys will correct things quicker because of that. That’s a good feeling. Not having to play them, that’s a good feeling.”
While this year’s freshman class is not as highly regarded as last year — ranked 28th in the country and third in the Big Ten by the 247 Sports Composite rankings, behind Ohio State (14th) and Michigan State (27th), after the 2018 class finished seventh overall and first in the conference — Turgeon will have at least two first-year players contributing when the season starts in three weeks.
Makhi Mitchell, a 6-10, 230-pound center — who along with his twin brother, Makhel, committed to Maryland as a rising junior in high school in Washington — and Donta Scott, a 6-6, 225-pound forward, are expected to be part of what could grow into a 10-man rotation.
“The new guys, very talented, very physical and a good feel for the game,” Turgeon said Tuesday. “Still learning how to practice hard every day, still learning how to do all that stuff, compete at a high level. … They fit in well, the upperclassmen really like ’em. They give us tremendous depth.”
Said junior guard Darryl Morsell: “In order to win in the Big Ten, you’ve got to be physical. When me and Bruno [Fernando] came in, we tried to bring a different dynamic. You can’t replace a guy like Bruno with one individual, so I feel all three of them combined are doing their best to create that physicality.”
Or, as Ayala said about the Mitchell twins: “They take up a lot of space. It’s like having two Brunos.”
While not expected to play as prominent roles as last year’s freshmen — when Jalen Smith was the team’s second-leading rebounder and third-leading scorer, and Wiggins and Ayala were its top 3-point shooters — this year’s group will give the Terps the kind of depth few teams in the country possess.
“What they do give us is physicality. We weren’t the most physical team last year," Turgeon said. “A lot of it was our youth. These guys are built pretty well. Our practices are much more physical and they need to be for us to play at the highest level. Good players. I couldn’t tell you today who’s going to play, or play more, or not play.”
Because of his versatility, and his ability to play against both small and power forwards, Scott might have the biggest role to start the season, which begins Nov. 5 against Holy Cross. Scott acknowledged that learning the plays for the two positions has been a challenge, “but at the same time, my teammates help me, my coaches help me. It’s coming along good.”
Scott said that the biggest adjustment from high school to college is changing his level of concentration at practice.
And his eating habits.
“You know Philly’s got some good cheese steaks,” he said with a smile.
Makhi Mitchell started following the Terps seriously when he was still in middle school, with Turgeon’s first NCAA tournament team in 2014-15. As much as he liked Melo Trimble and Jake Layman, Mitchell loved Dez Wells for the physical toughness and emotion he brought to the team.
“Just having that intensity, Coach liked that,” Mitchell said. “You try to bring it more and more every day in practice. Once you starting talkin’ trash, that just ignites everything. Practice is so much fun for us and the coaches. They like to watch it.”
Then there’s Chol Marial, a 7-2, 230-center from South Sudan who is expected to be out until early December after undergoing surgery Sept. 4 to repair stress fractures in both his shins. Turgeon said that Marial received a promising six-week update last week.
“The X-rays look good, the rods look good, he feels good, still has a little bit of swelling in the knees,” Turgeon said. “He’s lifting, he’s shooting, he’s doing some things on the floor. We’ll do another appointment on Nov. 25, that’ll be three months [since the surgery], and we’re hoping on that day he’ll get clearance. He’s doing terrific.”
Marial, who as a freshman was the nation’s top-rated center until he started having trouble with his legs, said that he was “kind of nervous” when Turgeon talked to him about getting surgery before the season, but eventually he and his family agreed.
“I can’t play hurt every year, so it is a good idea,” he said.
Asked if his former high school ranking — he came to Maryland as the No. 179 player in the 2019 class — gives him motivation, Marial said: “It doesn’t change my mind. I’m still up there [in the rankings in his own mind.] When I get healthy, I think I will be [back] up there.”
Ayala doesn’t want to compare this year’s freshmen with last year’s “special group," but he thinks this class, which also includes 6-6 shooting guard Hakim Hart, brings the kind of fun-loving personality the team lacked a year ago.
“They definitely bring something different to the team,” Ayala said. “Last year, we were so professional and focused that it kind of took away from having fun and being in the moment. Me personally, they help take my mind off of basketball. I think we need that to give us a different perspective on things.”
Nov. 1, 7:30 p.m.