When Maryland lost its Big Ten road opener last month, 62-60 at Purdue, coach Mark Turgeon said his young team would have won that game later in the season.
Based on the way the Terps have played in their past two league road games — as well as the fact that the Boilermakers are 3-3 since that Dec. 6 victory — Turgeon might have been correct in his assessment.
Three days after blowing out Rutgers in the first half in Piscataway, N.J., en route to a 77-63 victory, Maryland blew out Minnesota in the second half at Williams Arena on Tuesday night, overcoming an eight-point deficit to win easily.
“We just keep getting better,” Turgeon said in the postgame news conference after his team’s fourth straight win. “Don’t sleep on the fact that when we made our [22-7] run, we had four freshman in there with Anthony [Cowan Jr.]”
Here are three takeaways from Maryland’s 82-67 win over the Gophers:
1. Zone defense should become a regular staple, not merely used out of desperation.
Turgeon conceded he had no recourse but to have his team play zone after Minnesota scored without much resistance toward the end of the first half to open up a 40-34 lead, then kept scoring after halftime to stretch the lead to eight.
In his eight seasons in College Park, Turgeon’s teams have rarely played zone. He did it a little with his 2014-15 and 2015-16 teams by using 6-foot-9 forward Jake Layman at the top of what was typically a 1-3-1 zone.
It was usually done in similar desperation after the Terps fell behind, and never for as long as Maryland used it against the Gophers, who were willing accomplices by either shooting too quickly or waiting too long.
With forward Bruno Fernando on the bench after picking up his third personal foul, Turgeon used long-armed Aaron Wiggins (6-6) at the top of the zone, with Cowan and Serrel Smith Jr. on the wings. Forwards Jalen Smith (Mount Saint Joseph) and Ricky Lindo Jr. were in the back.
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The 6-8 Lindo made the biggest impact with his ridiculous length to block a couple of shots, alter a couple of others and pull down several of his six rebounds. Lindo also hit a wide-open 3-pointer during the game-breaking run.
It takes a lot for Turgeon to go away from his principles, especially the man-to-man defense he has coached his entire career. But this year’s team — because of its length on the wings, its size and shot-blocking capabilities inside — is a perfect zone team.
While Maryland’s upcoming Big Ten opponents will now have tape to watch to attack the zone, replicating the length of players such as Lindo and Jalen Smith, as well as the strength of Fernando inside, will be difficult to do with their respective scout teams.
2. Jalen Smith is starting to live up to his reputation coming in.
There were times this season when the 6-10 forward from Baltimore looked like a typical freshman, despite coming to college as a McDonald’s All-American and a player that some projected as a one-and-done first-round NBA draft pick.
While the former Mount Saint Joseph star will certainly hit a few more bumps along the way this season, he is now meeting the oversized expectations that accompanied him from high school — and is starting to exceed them.
Against perhaps his toughest physical matchup of the season in Minnesota senior Jordan Murphy, Smith was dominant. While Cowan took control of the game in the second half and wound up tying his career high with 27 points, Smith was not far behind.
Smith finished a career-high 21 points, coming on the heels of a 15-point game that included him scoring the Terps’ final seven in last week’s 74-72 win over then-No. 24 Nebraska and a 16-point outing at Rutgers.
It didn’t hurt that Murphy, who has been a double-double machine the past two seasons for the Gophers, picked up three first-half fouls and was never much of a factor, finishing with just nine points and five rebounds.
This is an interesting stretch for Smith, who now will have to take on Indiana’s Juwan Morgan on Friday night and might have to do some duty on Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ on Monday. As difficult as these matchups could be for Smith, he too could be a handful.
3. As many calls as Seton Hall and Nebraska got at Xfinity Center, Maryland got its share at Minnesota.
After both his team’s 78-74 loss to the Pirates on Dec. 22 and its last-second win over the Cornhuskers last week, Turgeon groused about some of the calls the visitors received and the discrepancy in the free-throw shooting.
While some critics said it was just Turgeon making excuses, there was some legitimacy to his complaints. But it’s hard for a team with so many young players to either know how to draw fouls or get favorable whistles, even at home.
The Terps got the line 27 times Tuesday against Minnesota, only four more times than the Gophers, but hit 24 free throws compared to just nine for the home team. Cowan alone was 10-for-10.
Though Maryland still has a tendency to make some bad fouls, and had to survive Fernando picking up his third personal early in the second half, the Terps showed some savvy, especially from two of their freshman.
On a night when he was quiet offensively and had to fight off some foul trouble himself, point guard Eric Ayala got fouled on a 3-point shot and made all three. Jalen Smith also sold a few of his fouls better than he has and was 7-for-8 from the line.
Considering some of the scoring droughts Maryland has been known to go through under Turgeon, the best way to avoid them is going to the free-throw line. While the Terps won’t get as many calls as they did Tuesday, hitting nearly as high a percentage will help.