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3 takeaways from No. 6 Maryland’s 86-63 win over George Mason

COLLEGE PARK — Another slow start didn’t stop Maryland from winning its fifth straight game without a defeat.

Here are three takeaways from an 86-63 victory Friday over George Mason:

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Maryland should consider coming out in a zone

Coach Mark Turgeon has taken a new tact regarding his team’s defense, typically switching out of his traditional man-to-man into a variety of zones and presses that he hopes will make the Terps less predictable and more difficult to figure out come Big Ten play.

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While his team’s press might be his most effective defensive weapon given the length and athleticism of the lineups he uses, it’s probably not the most efficient way to start in order to keep his team fresh throughout a 40-minute game.

But how about a zone?

Opposing teams have taken advantage of Maryland’s sluggish starts offensively by grabbing early leads in each of the first five games. The Terps have often adjusted slowly to teams that play zone much of the game.

So why not do that themselves?

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Though George Mason did a nice job at times attacking the zone by getting the ball to junior center A.J. Wilson in the mid-post for a variety of short jumpers, not every team has a player with soft hands and a soft touch who can catch passes in tight spaces and make shots in traffic.

Turgeon has shied away from zones in the past because he doesn’t like the way his teams have rebounded. While the Terps still have trouble corralling long rebounds off 3-point misses at times — perhaps the hardest type of shot to gauge how the ball is going to come off the rim — their length alone will help with that.

Playing zone from the start forces opponents to adjust from the outset and while he might not want the Terps to turn into the Syracuse of the Big Ten — it’s just a thought — it does put some confusion into the heads of the teams scouting Maryland.

If it helps his team start fast on the offensive end, he might have found something.

Good free-throw shooting offsets poor 3-point shooting

If Friday’s game showed anything, it’s that analytic nerds who say average 3-point shooting (35%) is better than respectable 2-point shooting (50%t) don’t take into consideration great free-throw shooting.

There’s nothing that beats going to the basket, getting fouled and knocking down your free throws.

On a night when the Terps continued to struggle from 3-point range — going 6-of-22 to bring their season’s percentage to 28.7 on 33-of-115 — and shot a season-low 40.3% from the field overall — Maryland made 30 of 38 from the line. That after going 14-of-25 in Tuesday’s win over Fairfield.

Turgeon’s team is not going to get as many friendly whistles at the Orlando Invitational next week or in the Big Ten starting next month as they did at Xfinity Center in the first five games. But this year’s team is probably better than any Turgeon has had at driving to the basket or getting calls in the air.

Senior point guard Anthony Cowan Jr., who seemed to start shying away from contact toward the end of last season after not getting as many calls as he did his first two years, is best when he is attacking the basket while still playing in control, which he has done for the most part so far. He made 7 of 8 Friday.

Sophomore forward Jalen Smith, who struggled at times with his free-throw shooting as a freshman, seems to be in a good rhythm after making 6 of 7 against George Mason and 7 of 9 against Fairfield. Smith has shot a shade over 74% this season compared to 65.8% a year ago.

Even freshman forward Makhi Mitchell got into the act. After not going to the line his first two games and making 1 of 5 the previous two games, Mitchell hit his first six and finished 8-of-12. Mitchell’s ability to make free throws will help him trying to play through contact.

As for the 3-point shooting, Maryland’s best 3-point shooters from last season, Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala, have shot 26.7 and 22.7%, respectively.

Though both have not settled and are driving to the basket with more confidence — Ayala had a terrific two-handed dunk over Wilson and got fouled — they will still need to start hitting from the outside to keep those driving lanes open.

It’s not that Maryland has poor 3-point shooters.

Despite having a below-average 3-point percentage throughout his career, Cowan is a great end-of-shot clock shooter. Wiggins and Ayala both have spots where they seem to hit more than their average. Others, such as Smith and Donta Scott, have also shown an ability to shoot from distance.

But they all should keep driving the ball and take their chances at the foul line.

Freshmen continue to grow

While they might not have made as immediate an impact as did last year’s group of freshmen — and fortunately for Turgeon they don’t need to — all four who’ve played so far (Center Chol Marial will be reevaluated before the team heads to Orlando and could be cleared to begin practicing) did something positive against George Mason.

Makhi Mitchell made the biggest impact, finishing with career-highs of 12 points and eight rebounds in 10 minutes. That came after Turgeon didn’t play the 6-foot-10, 230-pound center in the first half. His twin brother Makhel, who has been one of the biggest surprises, didn’t score in his 7-minute stint, but had four rebounds and a blocked shot.

Scott, who had seemingly lost some confidence after an impressive nine-point, six-rebound debut against Holy Cross, had his best game since the season opener with seven points, five rebounds and some terrific man-to-man defense in 16 minutes. Wing Hakim Hart, didn’t shoot well (1-of-5, 1-of-4 on 3s) but had a couple of assists in his 10 minutes, including a neat bounce pass feed to Lindo for a dunk.

Turgeon has done a good job getting them experience in the first five games, and it’s his job to figure out where they can help — and not hurt — the Terps. Clearly, the Mitchells and Scott are going to raise the team’s overall toughness and physicality in Big Ten play. Hart’s length helps his team’s defense and his passing is a plus maybe even Turgeon didn’t expect to see this soon.

If the 7-2, 230-pound Marial gets cleared and can get back on the court sometime in late December or early January, it’s going to make Maryland ridiculously deep and provide Turgeon with the kind of options — and also headaches — that his counterparts in the Big Ten, even Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, don’t possess.

Orlando Invitational

TEMPLE VS. NO. 6 MARYLAND

Thursday, 11 a.m.

TV: ESPN2 Radio: 105.7 FM

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