When Maryland played Nebraska at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln in mid-February last season, coach Mark Turgeon changed his team’s game plan by getting the ball early and often to then-freshman center Bruno Fernando.
While the Terps wound up losing to the Cornhuskers in a game that went down to the final minute, Fernando showed what kind of inside presence — force, really — he could become in the Big Ten.
After missing his first two shots, Fernando hit the next five he took before halftime. He tied what remains his career-high with 21 points on 9-of-14 shooting to go along with nine rebounds and a career-high five assists.
“He grew up a lot,” Turgeon said that night.
As the Terps get ready to play No. 24 Nebraska on Wednesday night at Xfinity Center, the 6-foot-10 Angolan’s career trajectory continues to ascend and Turgeon continues to go inside to Fernando.
“Obviously, you try to take advantage of matchups,” Turgeon said Tuesday. “Last year [against Nebraska] we felt like Bruno was really coming on late in the season. ... We went to him.
“Now we have a double-headed monster, we can go to Stix [Jalen Smith] down there too at times. We’ll see how they’re going to guard us. … We’ll just see who’s playing well for us and kind of go from there.”
If last year’s game plan surprised the Cornhuskers a bit given that Maryland’s offense was built around then-sophomore guards Anthony Cowan Jr. and Kevin Huerter, what Nebraska and other Big Ten teams will see this season is expected.
“It’s changed a lot [the way teams prepare for Maryland] because, obviously, I’m a different player than I was a year ago,” Fernando said in a telephone interview Tuesday after practice.
“Obviously I had a really good game against them last year. This year they can go back to last year’s film and see how much better I’ve gotten. … Last year I think I surprised them [passing out of double teams].”
Because of Huerter’s departure to the NBA — and despite the arrival of Smith, the McDonald’s All American from Mount Saint Joseph — Fernando is quickly becoming the most reliable scoring option for the Terps.
Repeating something he has said since the season started, Turgeon said on Tuesday’s teleconference, “I don’t think there’s a player in the country that’s improved as much as he has.”
Fernando’s 70.2 field goal percentage (73 of 102) leads the Big Ten and ranks third nationally. He also leads the Big Ten in blocked shots (2.5 a game) and is third in rebounding (9.6).
Coming off a 19-point, 12-rebound performance in Saturday’s 78-64 win over Radford — his second straight double-double and sixth of the season — Fernando’s 14.5 scoring average is second among Terps behind Cowan (16.5).
What has been equally impressive and vital to Maryland’s success has been Fernando’s improvement passing out of double- and even triple-teams, as evidenced by his 10 assists in the last three games, including a season-high four in a 78-74 loss to Seton Hall.
“Compared to last year, he’s grown a lot,” freshman point guard Eric Ayala Jr. said recently. “His patience and his pace for the game has slowed. He’s not so eager to make the quick play.
“He’s really developed into an all-around player, instead of just a back-down post big. … Bruno’s game is expanding. He can made reads and passes out of the double team.… and it just helps us get more involved with him.”
After getting three more assists against Radford, Fernando said that both he and his teammates are getting used to functioning more efficiently when he gets double-teamed, as is often the case.
“Every time I touch the ball at practice, I get double-teamed,” Fernando said. “I think it’s helping me get used to double teams, and knowing where my teammates are and making the pass.
“Way before in a couple of games earlier [in the season], we had trouble making the rotation and knowing where to be when I get doubled. I think now guys do a much better job in being in their spots and makes it easier for me to make the pass out.”
Turgeon said that when teams started double-teaming Fernando on most possessions earlier in the season, he seemed to rush as he often did as a freshman. It often caused turnovers and forced shots.
Along with the double teams he sees during practice, Fernando stays on for extra work on putting the ball on the floor.
“I think the game has slowed down again for him,” Turgeon said. “We’ve moved him away from the basket some instead of just having him on that right block the whole game so he’s inside-out. I think it’s really helped him.
“The offense that we run we try to recruit big guys that can pass a little bit. Bruno’s just gotten better and better at recognizing situations and reading things. It’s been fun to see and fun to be a part of and watch his growth.”
Fernando admits that he relied more on raw physical tools as a freshman and now understands the game more to make better decisions when he touches the ball, either in terms of shooting or passing to others.
“I think I’ve gotten comfortable,” said Fernando, who was on the Big Ten’s all-freshman team after averaging 10.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks. “That’s really the difference between Year 1 and Year 2. I know the plays now. I know what coach wants me to do, how to help my teammates on the court.
“This year I know I don’t have to speed up and rush anything. … I’m more relaxed, knowing that things will come to me as long as I don’t force anything. … Mentally I’m playing a lot smarter than I used to.”
Fernando understands how the presence of the 6-foot-10 Smith, who is projected by most to be a first-round NBA pick in 2019 or 2020, has helped take the pressure off him in terms of how opponents play the Terps.
“It helps a lot because teams now have to think about who they’re going to guard … how they’re going to guard us,” Fernando said. “He takes a lot of weight off my shoulders just in rebounding, scoring, playing defense.
“Having him there with me and having somebody that can help me with a lot of different things on the court. Now especially going [back] into Big Ten play with a lot of teams being able to match our size and athleticism.”
Not that Fernando doesn’t have any more room to improve before he tries again to see where he is viewed by NBA teams going into the 2019 draft. Most expect him to leave Maryland after the season.
Fernando’s offensive game has grown in his confidence to take outside shots. Earlier this season, when his shooting percentage was 85 percent after starting 34 of 40 in his first five games — including 8 for 8 against Hofstra — he joked that it’s tough to miss when you’re mostly dunking.
As he started to do toward the end of his freshman season, Fernando has recently shown an ability to pop out of pick-and-rolls for mid-range jumpers. It has allowed him to complement Smith, whose range is even deeper.
Asked after the team’s win over Loyola of Chicago in Baltimore last month how important it was to make other Big Ten teams see that, Fernando said, “It’s extremely important, but like I’ve said before, I’m not going out there to try to showcase anything. I do whatever it takes to help my team win.
“If it’s staying in the post and setting screens, just getting the ball down low, that’s what I’m doing. We got a lot of guys who can score the ball from the outside, so why would I do things I’m not supposed to do? Got to read the defense, and whenever they give me the chance to take the shot, I’ll take the shot.”
NOTES: Smith, who missed his first college game Saturday because of what Turgeon said was a “little stomach flu” that lasted 24 hours, practiced the past two days and should be “close to 100 percent” for Nebraska.