After taking baby steps, young Maryland men's basketball team will face toughest opponent yet

When the Big Ten voted to add two games and expand to a 20-game schedule for the 2018-19 men’s basketball season, Maryland coach Mark Turgeon immediately pulled the Terps from this week’s CBE Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City.

Instead of playing Missouri State and either Texas Tech or Southern California, the Terps wound up playing four exempt games at home against North Carolina A&T, Hofstra, Mount Saint Mary’s and Marshall, which faces Maryland (5-0) on Friday night at Xfinity Center.

The reasoning? Though Turgeon’s 2014-15 team won the Kansas City tournament that served as freshman point guard Melo Trimble’s coming out party, he wasn’t quite sure what the makeup and maturity level of his current team would be this early in the season.

“It helps you bring along a young team,” Turgeon said of this year’s early schedule. “Thank God. The thing for me was that Delaware was a pretty darn good team. ... Hofstra is a good team. Marshall is good.”

But how good is Maryland?

Based on the competition to date, Turgeon probably isn’t totally sure about the potential of these Terps quite yet, though he and his coaching staff haven’t just measured their progress by the average margin of victory in Maryland’s first five games, including the first two against Delaware and Navy.

Asked how he judges his team before last Friday’s 81-69 win over Hofstra, Turgeon said: “We keep a ton of stats that we don’t talk about a lot with media. Whether it’s rebounding stats or turnover stats or making the right decisions, there’s a lot of stats that we’ll keep, that I’ll look at those stats and see progress.”

For instance, Turgeon said he wasn’t happy with the way his team rebounded on the offensive boards in its lone exhibition game against Division II Lynn University on Oct. 30.

“We were standing around being lazy and not rebounding,” Turgeon said. “As the games have progressed, the numbers have gone up as the guys are developing habits. Shots go up, guys are supposed to get to certain spots.

“Those numbers have increased. There’s less bad and no boxouts and more good boxouts. It’s progressing in that way. It was pretty obvious we played better [against North Carolina A&T] — we didn’t in the second half, and part of that could have been on me because we played a lot of guys."

Another way in which Turgeon believes the Terps are getting better is in trying to get the ball inside to 6-foot-10 sophomore center Bruno Fernando and 6-foot-10 freshman forward Jalen Smith (Mount Saint Joseph) against teams that have almost exclusively played zone defense.

The Terps’ number of 3-point attempts have gone down from a season-high 30 against North Carolina A&T to a season-low 19 against Mount St. Mary’s as the number of touches for Fernando, Smith and others have gone up, including a combined 51 against Hofstra.

As a result, the Terps are starting to shoot the ball better from the outside, including making seven of 19 (36.5 percent) from 3-point range against Mount St. Mary’s compared with 24 of 94 (25.5 percent) in the first four games.

Maryland is also rebounding better, sharing the ball better and — with the exception of a rash of mistakes early and late against Mount St. Mary’s — committing fewer turnovers than it did the past two years.

Perhaps the stat of most interest to Maryland fans is the team’s best lineup.

Turgeon wants to be able play Fernando and Smith together for long stretches, as long as they can stay out of foul trouble.

“Unfortunately they’ve both got in a little bit of foul trouble so we haven’t been able play that lineup as much as we want,” Turgeon said last week. “We do think that is our best lineup.”

For a stretch of last Sunday’s 92-77 win over Mount St. Mary’s, the combination of Fernando and Smith showed they can be a difficult pair for opponents to guard. They wound up teaming for 37 points and 17 rebounds, with Fernando getting four blocked shots and Smith amassing five assists.

Marshall (4-0) certainly presents the toughest test for the Terps to date.

The Thundering Herd — coached by Dan D’Antoni, the brother of Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni and led by senior guards Jon Elmore (23 points a game) and C.J. Burks (21 points a game) — are coming off a 25-11 season in which they upset No. 4 seed Wichita State in the NCAA tournament’s Round of 64.

Against three common opponents (Mount St. Mary’s, N.C. A&T and Hofstra) this season, Marshall has won by an average of 17 points, though it beat Hofstra by only four. Maryland has won by a little over 16 points per game, but all victories have been in double digits.

Asked what challenges Marshall presents that the Terps have yet to face, Turgeon said in a teleconference Wednesday: “They can just flat out score the ball. They run at a great rate and we’ve gotten better at transition defense but we’re going to have to be at our best Friday night.

“They have two all-league players that can be close to being all-league players in the Big Ten. They play free, they loose, they create a lot of problems. And they’re confident. They won an NCAA tournament game [last season] and they haven’t lost yet.”

After the Thundering Herd, the Terps have five days to get ready for No. 4 Virginia in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge at Xfinity Center. It is a stretch that continues with the first two Big Ten games — Penn State at home Dec. 1, Purdue on the road Dec. 6 — and Loyola Chicago on Dec. 8 in Baltimore.

Turgeon believes he is starting to get a read on his team.

“We’re getting challenged in different ways every game, but we still have more talent in games that we should win if we come and play the way we’re capable of playing,” Turgeon said.

“I think this schedule was set up for this young team to grow and whether we're ready for that game [against Virginia], we’ll see. We’ll be a lot further along if we were getting beat up playing against a tougher schedule.”

don.markus@baltsun.com

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