CHAMPAIGN, ILL. — A month from now, when Maryland reopens Big Ten play, what happened here at State Farm Center against Illinois will either be forgotten or referenced depending on what happens.
Three months from now, when the Terps are trying to get into their fourth straight NCAA tournament, their overtime win over the Illini could help their resume rather than damage their chances.
It could have been one of the worst losses of Mark Turgeon’s seven-year tenure in College Park, certainly one of the most devastating considering the 22-point lead the Terps had in the second half.
Instead, it could become one of those victories that Turgeon and his players will talk about in terms of helping mold this young and talented team into one of the more interesting groups he has had at Maryland.
Here are some observations and opinions from Maryland’s 92-91 win over the Illini.
1. Anthony Cowan Jr. is one of the more fearless players the Terps have had in recent memory.
Though the sophomore point guard was fortunate to get the last-second call in overtime that led to his game-winning free throw, what was obvious was that he wanted to take that shot.
Cowan scored a career-high 27 points, including 10 of his team’s 17 points in overtime. It was a performance reminiscent of what his predecessor Melo Trimble often did, including the seven turnovers.
While Trimble used his upper body strength and crazy ball-handling skills to navigate to the basket, Cowan does it almost exclusively on guts and grit.
In that way, he is reminiscent of another former Maryland star who came out of the shadows as a sophomore to lead the Terps. That’s not saying Cowan is going to do what Juan Dixon did, but they are wired similarly.
If Cowan can hit his 3-point shot, as he did in making 4-for-5 Sunday, he’s going to become much more difficult to defend as the Terps move through the season.
2. Kevin Huerter has to cut down on his turnovers if Turgeon is going to use him to help run the offense.
Many of Cowan’s turnovers were caused when he was bumped off the ball, something that is not going to change unless he suddenly gets a lot stronger or Maryland starts getting some calls, especially on the road.
Huerter’s five turnovers, a couple that could have been very costly had the Terps lost in regulation, were often because the 6-7 guard was too careless with the ball and could have negated an otherwise strong performance that included 17 points and seven rebounds.
One of the more impressive stats for Huerter as a freshman was a nearly 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio of 88 assists to just 46 turnovers in 971 minutes.
Huerter kept this year’s ratio reasonable (34 assists to 24 turnovers) with four assists against the Illini, including a couple of great no-look feeds to Michal Cekovsky and Justin Jackson for baskets.
But teams have been able to do something this season — speed up Huerter — that didn’t seem possible a year ago. Getting back to that low turnover rate is something that will help the Terps as the season goes on.
3. It might be center-by-committee for the Terps this season.
Going into the season, many thought that Turgeon would go big this season by using 7-foot-1 senior Michal Cekovsky and 6-foot-10 freshman Bruno Fernando together for long stretches, possibly in the starting lineup.
But a few things conspired against that happening.
The first was Cekovsky’s recovery from the serious ankle injury that sidelined him the last six games of last season, and the long rehab process that kept him from coming into the preseason in top shape.
As a result, Fernando spent most of the preseason learning Maryland’s system as a center, something that he has shown adept at playing given his low-post skills and impressive strength.
Also, Justin Jackson’s early season struggles, especially when playing on the perimeter, forced Turgeon back to often using a three-guard lineup, which for now remains the best strategy.
If Fernando was ready to assume a starting role and play starter’s minutes — or at least 30 a game — that would preclude the committee approach.
But as happens with many big freshmen, Fernando is finding himself in foul trouble more often than not. While he was able to stay in the game Sunday, which proved invaluable given his tip-in to force overtime, Turgeon still needs Cekovsky, Ivan Bender and Sean Obi to help solidify the position.
Cekovsky still gets into foul trouble, as he did Sunday, but he needs to contribute more than he did against the Illini (two points, one rebound in 12 minutes). Bender was certainly more active in his 15 minutes starting alongside Ceko (four points, four rebounds, two assists).
As for Obi, Turgeon can use the remaining non-conference games to see if the 6-foot-9 graduate transfer can help the Terps as they thought he might. At worst, the four big men can help ensure that none of them foul out of any games the rest of the way.