During the second half of his eight-year tenure at Maryland, men's basketball coach Mark Turgeon has typically talked about how much he loved his team going into the season.
This year feels different to Turgeon, and it might look different to fans when they gather Friday night at Xfinity Center for Maryland Madness.
He might love it even more than most.
Turgeon’s affection for the 2018-19 team has a lot to do with the fact that he hasn’t yet coached six of his 12 scholarship players in an official game, and is excited about the prospects of doing so.
“Our young guys are willing learners, willing listeners, but also very confident players, very good players,” Turgeon said last week at media day. “It's a little young, but it’s a nice mix.”
Led by McDonald’s All-American Jalen Smith (Mount Saint Joseph), the freshman class is not only the largest Turgeon has brought in at Maryland, but also his highest ranked, No. 1 in the Big Ten and No. 7 nationally.
While the 6-foot-10, 215-pound Smith — known to everyone as “Stix” for his slim but quickly developing frame — and 6-6 wing Aaron Wiggins are the most recognizable names, point guard Eric Ayala might wind up starting with shooting guard Serrel Smith Jr. and forward Ricky Lindo Jr. also expected to be part of the rotation.
“I look back to June whenever we started this summer, across the board, whether it’s Jalen Smith putting on 20 pounds of muscle or Serrel Smith really becoming a better defender or Eric Ayala … believing he’s a really good player and belongs out there and continues to work,” Turgeon said. “We did a lot of team building stuff. I think just our culture is really good. I think our guys really understand what it takes to win because they've listened. And just because we’re young doesn’t mean we’re not talented. We have a talented group. I like the mix.”
The biggest surprise to date has been Ayala. After flirting with committing after finishing high school a year ago, the 6-5, 205-pound Ayala took a prep year at IMG Academy — as sophomore center Bruno Fernando did a year earlier — to hone his point guard skills and grow a full beard that makes him look a lot older than 19.
“I think spending those prep years — I did two years at Putnam Science — and spending the year at IMG really helped me out a lot,” Ayala said. “We were doing a lot of the stuff at IMG that we do here, as far as the weight room and our coach. Coach [John] Mahoney coached at Michigan, so he knows how to prepare players for college.”
Ayala said being part of such a large freshman class has been helpful.
“We’re all going through the same things together," Ayala said. “We’re all learning on the fly, we’re all learning together and it‘s just cool to go through certain highs and lows with as a freshman class.”
Still, Turgeon is going to be counting heavily on junior point guard Anthony Cowan Jr., the team’s leading scorer last year when he was selected third-team All-Big Ten, as well as Fernando, who was on the league’s All-Freshman team last season, to provide the leadership for the freshmen.
Two other players who suffered season-ending injuries in early December — redshirt senior forward Ivan Bender, who is coming back from a torn meniscus, and senior walk-on guard Andrew Terrell, who tore ligaments in his ankle — are also expected to help lead the team.
Aside from Cowan and Kevin Huerter, who left Maryland after his sophomore year and is now a rookie with the Atlanta Hawks, there was a leadership void last season, especially from veteran players such as Michal Cekovsky, Jared Nickens and Dion Wiley. Along with injuries, it contributed to a disappointing 19-13 record.
“The culture is back to where it needs it to be,” Turgeon said, “All our veteran guys have improved tremendously, not only on the floor but in their leadership skills, maturity. Just a lot of areas.”
But Maryland is going to need its young players to mature — quickly.
After starting the season with a handful of what should be easily winnable games, the Terps will face No. 5 Virginia in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge on Nov. 28, Penn State and Purdue in the first week of Big Ten play on Dec. 1 and 6, and Loyola of Chicago, a Final Four team a year ago, in Baltimore on Dec. 8.
Asked how he hopes to turn the talent of the freshman class into a high level of performance on the court, Turgeon said, “Sometimes young guys don’t know. They just go out and play. Let’s hope they continue to think that way.
“What’s going to be the challenge for us is when it does get tough, how are they going to handle it? We’ve got some incredibly tough parts of our schedule throughout the year. An injury, adversity, whatever — that’s going to be the key.”
NOTES: Doors to Xfinity Center for Maryland Madness will open at 6 p.m., with the program starting around 8 p.m. with the women’s team being introduced and playing a short scrimmage before the men’s team does the same. The men’s team will play its lone preseason game Tuesday against Division II Lynn University.