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Looking at Maryland men’s basketball’s tight rotation: Who’s taking the brunt of workload, is it sustainable?

Entering the 2019-20 season, the strength of the Maryland men’s basketball team was undoubtedly its depth. The team lost just one player from last season’s rotation in Bruno Fernando. After having one of the youngest teams in college basketball last season, the freshmen from the 2018 recruiting class had a year’s worth of experience, plus they were tested in the NCAA tournament. Associated Press voters noticed that, combined with another solid recruiting class in 2019, and ranked the Terps No. 7 in the preseason poll.

Entering Sunday’s matchup with No. 25 Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio, seventh-ranked Maryland sits at the top of Big Ten standings, but it hasn’t been because of its depth, but because of its heavy workloads for its top six players. Coach Mark Turgeon has increased minutes for his top six since the departure of Makhi and Makhel Mitchell and especially in the last month.

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“I wish we were a little deeper. Hopefully we’ll get deeper as the season goes on,” Turgeon said after Maryland’s 67-60 win at Michigan State on Feb. 15.

The Baltimore Sun gathered numbers on Turgeon’s workload for his six-man rotation, how it has changed over the course of the season, which players’ minutes have been most affected and whether the method can last for a deep run in the NCAA tournament.

How has Turgeon used his top 6 over the years?

The top six players in Turgeon’s rotation — Anthony Cowan, Eric Ayala, Darryl Morsell, Donta Scott, Jalen Smith and Aaron Wiggins — have combined to play an average of 177.9 minutes per game since it was announced Dec. 27 that the Mitchell twins would be leaving the program. If Turgeon sustains this workload for his top six, it would mark the highest of any top-six rotation in the last four years.

In the 2016-17 season, the top six players averaged 154.6 combined minutes per game. Minutes across the bench were spread out, with 11 players averaging at least 10 minutes per game. In the 2017-18 season, average combined minutes increased to 173.5, with nine players averaging at least 10 minutes per game. In the 2018-19 season, average combined minutes for the top six dropped to 170 and eight players averaged at least 10 minutes. This season, only the team’s top six players are averaging 10 minutes. The next highest player, Serrel Smith Jr., averages eight minutes but hasn’t logged over eight minutes in the last five games.

How have combined minutes for the top 6 changed this season?

Minutes for the top six players have particularly increased since the departure of the Mitchell twins. Part of that is the timing of the conference slate, which began in early January, about a week after they left the program. With the Big Ten serving as the toughest conference in college basketball, Turgeon has been forced to rely heavily on his best players. In the past month, Turgeon has increased minutes for his top six players to over 185 minutes, while shrinking the use of his bench.

How has the Mitchell twins’ departure affected frontcourt depth?

The Mitchell twins’ decision to leave the program directly affected Maryland’s frontcourt depth. The twins averaged just a combined 16.1 minutes per game but served as extra bodies to spell Jalen Smth. Earlier in the season, Turgeon remarked that he viewed the twins as similar players who could be used in the rotation interchangeably.

With two fewer bigs in the rotation, the workload for Scott and Jalen Smith has increased. In the team’s first 12 games, all with the twins, Smith averaged 28 minutes on the court. In the team’s 14 games without the twins, that number has increased to 33.5 points per game. Smith hasn’t shown any sign of wearing down, recording a double double in the team’s last nine games.

Scott has seen similar rises to his time on the court. In the team’s first 12 games, the freshman from Philadelphia averaged 12.2 minutes per game. In the last 14 games, that number has ballooned to 24.1 minutes per game. The team’s soft early schedule and Turgeon figuring out his rotation in the team’s first few games might have played a role in Scott’s low totals to begin the season. The freshman has begun to carve a role on the team, and if Turgeon’s recent comments are any indication of the future, one should expect Scott’s minutes to increase.

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With Scott and Jalen Smith essentially taking up the minutes lost from the Mitchell twins, Ricky Lindo Jr. has seen less time on the court. The sophomore forward’s playing time has drop in his second year, from 12.2 minutes per game to 7.6 minutes, and his playing time has steadily decreased as the season has progressed.

On Friday, Turgeon said he has worked on putting Lindo in positions where he can excel on the court, which included playing him at center more often. Morsell said Lindo has “embraced” the prospects of playing center in a small-ball lineup.

“I think just playing smart defensively is what I want with him,” Turgeon said. “And he’s such a dynamic rebounder. I think if he can gain confidence with his defense, I think he’ll help us rebounding on both ends of the floor and his athleticism.”

Is a top-heavy rotation a good recipe for a deep NCAA tournament run?

Maryland’s rotation will be tested in the Big Ten tournament and NCAA tournament, where there is less recovery time between games and quick foul trouble can force a team’s best player to the bench. For Final Four teams in the last two years, their use of their top-six players have varied. Minutes for top players typically increase once tournament play begins, but teams have had success in either instance, where it’s having its best players log high minutes or going eight, nine-deep in one’s rotation.

Maryland’s workload for its top-six players since the Mitchell twins left would rank third among the last eight Final Four teams.

“Even if a kid only goes in for a minute or two minutes, he’s doing his job,” Turgeon said. "Sometimes it’s hard for young people to understand, but I think this time of year, our guys get it. If we can give [Jalen Smith] two minutes, from 12:00 to 10:00 in the second half, that’s really big for our team.

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“It doesn’t have to be five or six minutes. It doesn’t have to be 10 or 12 minutes. It just has to be two quality minutes.”

No. 7 Maryland@No. 25 Ohio State

Sunday, 4 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9 Radio: 105.7 FM, 980 AM

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