Jalen Smith’s performance Sunday against Indiana and postgame outburst at Assembly Hall has put the spotlight on the former Mount Saint Joseph star. Here are three takeaways from Maryland’s 77-76 win over the Hoosiers.
Even before apologies were made by Smith and Maryland coach Mark Turgeon, some Terp fans weren’t displeased to see some fiery emotion from a normally placid player.
If there has been a consistent criticism during Smith’s career, it has been that he has rarely shown the kind of fiery personality that made former Terps such as Bruno Fernando, Dez Wells and Greivis Vásquez so popular during their college careers.
Until the past week, the most emotion Smith had demonstrated came after last season’s last-second NCAA tournament loss to LSU in Jacksonville, Florida, when he headed to the dressing room sobbing, needing support from Fernando.
That changed Wednesday at Northwestern.
As Maryland was completing its comeback from a 14-point deficit behind Smith’s then-career high 25 points, he tried to quiet those fans who had chided him with “overrated” chants by pointing to the scoreboard and putting a finger to his lips.
Smith said afterward that it was something he had done regularly during his high school career in Baltimore, and that he stopped after his parents told him he looked like a “fool”.
It’s fair to say that Smith probably heard from his parents even more Sunday after he had to be pulled from the floor at Assembly Hall by his angry coach for yelling at Hoosier fans and pounding the school’s insignia on the court.
While Smith quickly posted an apology on social media, and both Smith and Turgeon made similar comments during postgame interviews, Maryland fans attending the game said they loved seeing it.
It was reminiscent of what Vásquez did in leading to the Terps to their previous victory at Indiana when he was a senior during the 2009-10 season after thousands of Indiana fans chanted “USA! USA!” toward the emotional Venezuelan.
If there’s been a steady criticism of Turgeon’s teams during his nine-year tenure, it’s that they have been collectively soft and the players were almost too nice. Smith has certainly fit that description since he arrived.
Whatever chance the Terps have to change their recent string of early postseason exits in both the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments is not solely up to Smith, though he will likely play a significant role.
A little emotion from ‘Stix’ won’t hurt. In fact, it seems to fuel an even more effective player who was named Big Ten Player of the Week on Monday for the first time in his career.
“It wasn’t Jalen,” Turgeon said Sunday about the postgame outburst. “If you know Jalen, he’s just a great kid. He just got caught up. He’s 20 years old, he’s playing his tail off. He’s been phenomenal.
Offensively, defensively, decision-making. This arena’s terrific and it gets you fired up to play in it. I just think the guys were so happy, how they handled such a tough environment and just kept fighting all the way to the end.”
Maryland seems to be emerging from its season-long 3-point shooting slump.
Though their 3-point shooting remains streaky, the Terps have had long stretches in their past three games when it didn’t seem they could miss from long distance.
It happened during the first half against Purdue, when Maryland hit seven of its first 10 shots from beyond the arc to build a 16-point halftime lead, then missed their last 14 attempts and held on for a 57-50 victory.
It happened during the second half at Northwestern, when they went 8-for-18 from 3-point range to secure a 77-66 win after burying themselves in a 14-point halftime deficit by shooting 10-for-15 from long distance in the opening 20 minutes.
And against Indiana, most who have watched Maryland hover between 25% and 30% shooting from 3-point range for most of the season were amazed as the Terps hit their first five 3′s in building a 14-point lead midway through the first half.
They wound up 12-for-29 for the game, but got a huge 3 from sophomore wing Aaron Wiggins with a little under a minute left to pull within a point. Coming after Wiggins had missed two wide-open 3′s, it proved to be the shot of the game.
Asked if the 3-point shooting in the first half from both teams — Maryland was 9-for-17 and Indiana was 6-for-9 — surprised him, Turgeon said: “Not from us, because we can really shoot. It’s been the most crazy year I’ve ever had. I don’t even like looking at our stats, they’re so bad. And we’re 6-3 in the league. We’re shooting 37% percent in the league [overall]. Our guys can shoot.
“Anthony [Cowan Jr.] can make shots, Wiggs can make shots, Donta [Scott] can make shots. Jalen can really shoot. We got a lot of guys that can really shoot it. Maybe you say Darryl [Morsell’s] when the shot clock went down, maybe that one surprised me a little bit, but Darryl has made some 3’s too. I made a comment on the radio the other day, ‘We may be the best 3-point shooting team in the country the rest of the way.’ Who knows? Maybe we can become that team.”
The assist to turnover ratio of Cowan and Ayala couldn’t have been any better.
Lost in the celebration of Maryland’s first win at Indiana as a Big Ten member — the only venue where the Terps hadn’t won since joining the league for the 2014-15 season — was the fact that Turgeon’s team committed a season-low five turnovers.
At the heart of that crucial statistic was the way Maryland’s two main ball-handlers, Cowan and sophomore guard Eric Ayala, combined for 10 assists without turning the ball over in a combined 67 minutes. Cowan had four assists to go along with his 18 points in 38 minutes, and Ayala had six in nearly 29 minutes.
It’s clear that the Terps are capable of playing with more focus than they have in recent seasons, and Turgeon can use their performance Sunday as a testament to what could happen when they don’t turn the ball over. What Maryland did at Indiana comes on the heels of having just one turnover in the second half at Northwestern.
It’s also apparent that Maryland is seemingly more comfortable with Ayala running the team in most of its half-court sets so that Cowan can concentrate on scoring.
While Ayala has struggled this season with his outside shooting and offensive production — he has shot 3-for-12 overall, including 2-for-9 from 3-point range, in the past three games and has scored just five points in each of them — his steadiness had seemingly settled the Terps. Ayala had the highest plus-minus (plus-13) of any Maryland player against Indiana.
“We were good last year playing five freshmen because Eric Ayala was really good,” Turgeon said Sunday. “Eric hasn’t been Eric Ayala until the last couple of games. He was terrific. He’s got great pace, great confidence. We were able to get downhill [running] a lot. We’re hard to guard. It’s kind of happening, and we’re getting there. And Eric was really good defensively.”