In the midst of Maryland losing most of its 22-point lead before hanging on for a season-opening 73-67 win over Delaware on Tuesday night in College Park, it appeared the team’s highly ranked freshman class had some problems handling the pressure.
Yet in retrospect, coach Mark Turgeon was generally pleased with how the group performed in its first college game. Though only 6-foot-10 forward Jalen Smith (Mount Saint Joseph) put up big numbers, four others contributed to the victory.
Smith was largely responsible for Maryland avoiding being upset in the opener. Forced to be the team’s lone big man after Bruno Fernando got into foul trouble and eventually fouled out, Smith finished with 19 points, 13 rebounds and two blocked shots.
Aaron Wiggins, a 6-6 wing, had seven points, seven rebounds, five steals and three assists in a team-high 36 minutes. Eric Ayala, a 6-5 point guard, wound up with six points and a team-high five assists in 28 minutes.
In a much smaller role, 6-8 forward Ricky Lindo Jr. had four rebounds, two points and two blocks in 10 minutes. The only other freshman to play, 6-4 shooting guard Serrel Smith Jr., had two rebounds in nine minutes.
“All in all, I’ll go through the film and be happy with the young guys that got to play a lot,” Turgeon said after the game about a recruiting class that wound up being ranked first in the Big Ten and seventh nationally. “That was a lot on their plate.”
Turgeon also brought up the fact that the Blue Hens were a much more experienced team.
“They have some transfers and older guys, I think there was one fifth-year guy. So my guys were in eighth grade when that kid was starting college,” Turgeon said. “We were awfully young out there.”
The Terps might not face the same across-the-board experience Friday night when they meet Navy in the Veterans Classic, but the setting of cozy, crazy Alumni Hall should raise the level of nerves even more than were apparent Tuesday at Xfinity Center.
“It’s good to see where you stand early with it [playing on the road],” Turgeon said in a conference call Thursday. “We’ll prepare them for it, we’ll talk about it as much we can and hope they’ll react well to it.
“Hopefully that’ll fire them up and they’ll play better because of it. A lot of times, some guys don’t know any different. They just go out and play. We’ll see. It should be a great environment.”
Jalen Smith and Ayala conceded after the game Tuesday that they felt nerves at the beginning, though not at the end. Ayala said he made some uncharacteristic mistakes, dropping the ball on a 2-on-1 fast break and hitting just the backboard on a 3-point try.
“That’s stuff I can fix,” Ayala said. “That’s just first-game stuff. I know once we get deeper in the season, even probably the next game, I won’t be doing stuff like that.”
Said Turgeon: “Ayala’s a winner. He’s got toughness. Maybe it’s first game jitters or whatever, but we did a lot of things uncharacteristic of this team.”
Jalen Smith said in a conference call Thursday, “That’s going to take a while to get rid of. I’m still going in with the same focus in previous practices and previous games [in the preseason].”
Turgeon said after the game that he wants to increase his team’s depth to decrease the minutes this early in the season for players such as Wiggins, junior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. (33) and Smith (31). Some of that had to do with foul trouble for Fernando and sophomore guard Darryl Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph).
Asked Thursday if that means playing veterans such as redshirt senior forward Ivan Bender and redshirt sophomore Joshua Tomaic more than the four minutes each played Tuesday, Turgeon said, “We had a nice lead [against Delaware] that went away so quickly.”
“I think every night’s going to be different who I play,” Turgeon said. “I think I feel pretty good about five, six or seven guys. Figuring out who eight, nine and 10 are going to be if we want to be a deep team. Hopefully it will flow a little bit better than it did for us on Friday than it did on Tuesday as far as our depth.”
Turgeon is counting on his whole team, including his younger players, to shoot a lot better from the outside. After Morsell opened the game with a 3-point shot, and Wiggins hit his first 3-pointer three minutes later, the Terps missed their last 15 3-pointers, including all five tried by Cowan (4-for-14 overall) and the last five by Wiggins (1-for-8 overall).
What was encouraging to Turgeon was that the Terps took good shots against Delaware’s zone defense. In the 25 possessions the Blue Hens went zone, Turgeon said Maryland only took four questionable shots and had two turnovers.
“We felt like our execution was really good against the zone, and that’s what matters,” he said. “We have good shooters. Just one of those nights where we started to miss and it kind of snowballed on us a little bit. What I was proud of is we figured how to get to the rim against a zone, which isn’t easy to do.”
While the reviews on Smith were obviously positive, Turgeon was also happy with the other freshmen who played significant minutes.
Ayala made a couple of drives and a mid-range jumper toward the end and also got the ball to Smith. Wiggins showed his versatility on a cold shooting night.
“I was really proud of him.” Turgeon said of Wiggins. “Some guys when their shot’s not falling, they don’t do the other things. And he obviously didn’t let it affect him. That’s why he played so many minutes. I thought he was terrific defensively, he rebounded well. He can score, it’s just a matter of time before he gets comfortable. It just shows what an all-around player we got in Aaron Wiggins.”
Even Lindo, who was the last player in the class to sign and among the first subs off the bench, showed flashes.
“We were really happy with Ricky,” Turgeon said. “We thought he rebounded well, we thought he defended pretty well. He missed a couple of little short shots that he’ll probably make as time goes on. I think as a staff and watching the film we were really pleased with Ricky and his playing time will be significant and grow for us.”