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Maryland gets a jump on men's basketball season with three-game summer tour in Italy

Maryland gets a jump on men's basketball season with three-game summer tour in Italy
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon talks to some of his players, including former Mount Saint Joseph star Jalen Smith (wearing goggles) during a recent practice at Xfinity Center. (Maryland Athletics)

Maryland point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. acknowledges that the disappointment of last season lingers more than five months after it ended.

“It leaves a very bad taste, and I think it’s important to make sure you keep that bad taste,” Cowan said Thursday. “I don’t think it’s something that you should just forget about. When teams lose or just don’t make the tournament, I think they always try to make it a ‘next year’ type deal.

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“I think it’s important to just keep reiterating that we didn’t make the [NCAA] tournament, so we’ve got to do something different or we’ve just got to work a little harder. Something’s got to change. I think that’s one of my jobs, just make sure everyone stays level-headed. We haven’t made anything yet. We haven’t done anything yet.”

For the first time since leaving the court at New York's Madison Square Garden on March 1 after losing to Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament to finish a 19-13 season, the Terps will travel nearly 4,500 miles to play their next game. It will come Monday in Rome, part of a three-game, 10-day trip to Italy.

Despite the return of three starters — Cowan, a junior who was named third-team All-Big Ten, sophomore center Bruno Fernando, who was named to the league’s All-Freshman team, as well as sophomore guard Darryl Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph) — this year’s team already looks a lot different.

At least two members, and possible three, of a five-player freshman class that is ranked higher (No. 7 overall by 247Sports.com) than any of coach Mark Turgeon’s previous seven recruiting classes will likely start for the Terps this season. It makes the extra court time this summer even more crucial.

“This is really good timing for us,” Turgeon said Friday. “Today was Day 9 we’ve had with them. We’ve gotten a lot in. They’ve been very coachable. They’ve been fun to coach. The chemistry has been good. We could use 20 days and two Italy trips, but we’ll take what we got."

With the 10 additional practices allowed under NCAA rules for teams going on foreign tours — along with the 16 hours of summer practice time allotted for all Division I teams — Turgeon and his staff have been able to put in more of his system than in past years.

“I’ve probably overwhelmed them so it will be a little easier in October,” Turgeon said. “Not really concerned if we lose in Italy or not. It doesn’t go on our record. It doesn’t hurt us for the NCAA tournament. … It’s just them getting a feel for me, me getting a feel for them. I feel like we’ve gotten a lot done.”

While Jalen Smith, the No. 10 ranked high school player in the country by ESPN, has lived up to the expectations that followed him from Mount Saint Joseph, freshman point guard Eric Ayala has clearly exceeded what Turgeon and others thought the Terps were getting from a player who took a postgraduate year at the IMG Academy in Florida after finishing his high school career in Delaware.

“Eric’s better than I thought,” Turgeon said of the 6-foot-5, 180-pound Ayala, who was ranked 97th overall by ESPN. “Eric’s gotten a lot better. His postgrad year really helped him. Eric’s a really good leader, he knows how to find guys. He's got good size, he’s got great toughness. He’s a better scorer than when I signed him.”

Ayala will give Turgeon the flexibility to move Cowan, the team’s leading scorer last season, off the ball. It could be reminiscent of two years ago, when Cowan’s arrival pushed then junior Melo Trimble to be more of a scoring guard. Ayala is certainly more physically mature than Cowan was — and possibly still is — with his full-grown beard adding to that older-than-he-looks persona.

“He’s very poised. He’s picking up things a lot faster than I thought he would, especially like plays or just little things that Turgeon likes his guards to do,” Cowan said. "You can kind of tell he’s a little bit older.”

The added depth provided by Ayala and two other freshmen, 6-6 wing Aaron Wiggins and 6-4 guard Serrel Smith Jr., will also allow Turgeon to rest Cowan and Morsell more than he was able to do last season or when Cowan was a freshman. The team faded down the stretch both years.

After being a perimeter-oriented offense for the past two seasons, the departure of shooting guard Kevin Huerter (No. 19 overall to the Atlanta Hawks) and forward Justin Jackson (No. 41 by the Denver Nuggets and traded to the Orlando Magic) to the NBA draft could change the approach with the arrival of Smith and the expected maturation of Fernando.

The offensive versatility of the 6-10, 195-pound Jalen Smith and the 6-10, 245-pound Fernando, as well as their length and intensity on the defensive end, could give Turgeon even more of an inside presence than the Terps had when Robert Carter Jr. and Diamond Stone helped Maryland reach the Sweet 16 in the 2015-16 season.

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“We’re playing a little differently because they’re such a presence for us,” Turgeon said. ”Defensively, with their length and size, they’re really going to cover up a lot of our mistakes. … Those two guys with their size are going to be interchangeable for us. They’re going to be fun to coach. They’re feeding off each other and they’re working together.”

Fernando, who opted to return for another year after performing well at the NBA draft combine in Chicago in May, said that, "[Jalen Smith] coming in and playing with me in the same lineup will be a beneficial for us as a team because me and him can do a lot of stuff that other teams can’t do.”

Admittedly, the Terps have something in common to work on before they leave for Italy.

Asked how much he’s worked on his Italian, Fernando started to speak, stopped and then said, sheepishly, “Mi chiamo, Bruno. I’m still learning. I’ve got a piece of paper I'm reading every day.”

Cowan has a much longer way to go.

“When do we leave, Saturday?” he said. "I’ve got to start practicing.”

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