The Maryland men’s basketball team has spent the better part of the 2017-18 season reinventing itself.
The Terps went from relying on three sophomores after the departure of star point guard Melo Trimble to counting mostly on two of them, guards Anthony Cowan Jr. and Kevin Huerter, after forward Justin Jackson was sidelined in December for the season with a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
Coach Mark Turgeon went from having one of his deepest teams in his seven years at Maryland to having his thinnest with season-ending injuries to Jackson and redshirt junior forward Ivan Bender (torn meniscus), as well as the recent heel injury that will keep senior center Michal Cekovsky off the floor for at least a week.
After some of these issues led to the Terps going 3-6 in January, Maryland will have to work to avoid the results from the last two seasons when the team started well in the Big Ten only to fade badly in February, and, as was the case last season, also in March.
A 68-63 win Sunday over struggling Wisconsin helped the Terps start the month better than they did last season, when they lost a close game at home to Purdue and seemed to still be in a funk three days later when they suffered an embarrassing six-point loss at Penn State.
Maryland (16-9, 5-7) will get a chance for redemption Wednesday night when it visits Bryce Jordan Center to play a much-improved Nittany Lions team. Penn State (16-9, 6-6) has won three of its past four, a stretch that began with an 82-79 win at then-No. 13 Ohio State on Jan. 13.
“Players-wise, we were saying it’s a new month … January wasn’t good to us,” Huerter said Sunday. “Last year, February wasn’t good to us. We’re trying to reverse that. We think we have a lot of winnable games coming up, a couple of games obviously on the road. We’re playing a lot of games, so the next stretch should be a lot of fun. We're just trying to get wins.”
Because the Big Ten shortened its regular season to play its league tournament a week earlier than normal at New York’s Madison Square Garden, teams find themselves in stretches during which they play almost every two or three days. This is one for the Terps, who have four games in 10 days.
Turgeon, who continues to be upbeat about the way his team has battled despite a recent spate of narrow losses and players such as Cowan and Huerter rarely coming out of games, said Sunday that it was “pretty amazing” what his team has done lately given its depleted frontcourt.
“Our guys have been resilient,” Turgeon said. “We’re down three starters today if you think about it — our 3 [Jackson], 4 [Bender] and 5 [Cekovsky]. So we have guys starting that shouldn’t be starting, we have guys on our bench that shouldn’t be playing [as much]. But we keep battling and haven’t embarrassed ourselves in a long time.”
Of the six losses, five were on the road, four were to ranked teams and three went down to the wire. Of the remaining six regular-season games, three will be on the road, but only one — against No. 20 Michigan on Maryland’s senior day — will be against an opponent that is currently in the Top 25.
As difficult as Sunday’s win turned out to be after the Terps used a 17-2 run to close the first half and build a 10-point halftime lead, Turgeon said, “It’s hard to win when you haven’t been winning, so the first one feels good.”
Cowan, whose team-high 23 points included two end-of-shot clock jumpers (one a 3-pointer) and 6-of-6 free-throw shooting (making all four in the final 10 seconds), said after the game that having two freshman starters in Darryl Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph) and Bruno Fernando is part of the team's growing process.
“Sometimes you’ve got to expect them to make some mistakes,” Cowan said. “I think today we really focused when we needed to and that was important for us to win.”
That focus must remain sharp if the Terps want to be successful the rest of the month and have any chance to play meaningful games in March.
“Our practices have been great and I’m having a lot of fun coaching them, and that’s really what matters,” Turgeon said. “For them I hope we have success down the stretch because they’ve been resilient and they continue to work.”