For the third straight season, the Maryland men's basketball team lost its opening game in the Big Ten tournament, this time Thursday as the fifth seed to No. 13 seeded Nebraska, 69-61, at the United Center.
It was the third straight year that No. 21 Maryland, seeded fifth, lost its Big Ten tournament opener to a lower seed and the fifth straight postseason defeat for the Terps.
It came against a team Maryland had beaten twice during the regular season — including by 15 points in Lincoln, Neb. — and a team that was down to six scholarship players and a walk-on with the wonderful name of Johnny Trueblood.
Here are three takeaways from Maryland’s 69-61 defeat.
1. Anthony Cowan Jr.’s second personal foul set the tone for his and his team’s long afternoon.
After a slow start for the Terps, a steal and two-handed dunk off a 180-degree spin move by freshman wing Aaron Wiggins followed by two free throws by freshman guard Eric Ayala tied the game at 14 with 7:51 left in the first half.
Cowan, who had picked up his first personal early in the game, was whistled for his second foul right after Wiggins’ dunk. It happened when Cowan went for a steal on the inbounds pass.
It was not just a bad foul because of where it happened, more than 90 feet from his team’s basket, but because the Maryland point guard already had one and Turgeon had to take him out.
Playing with the two fouls late in the first half, Cowan allowed Nebraska wing Thorir Thorbjarnarson to drive right by him for an easy layup and a 25-16 lead.
After taking just one shot in the first half, it also seemed to make Cowan settle for 3-point shots or take tough pull-up jumpers in the lane rather than drive the ball for fear of getting called for a charge.
Though his only point of the first half came after getting fouled on a drive and making a free throw late in the half, Cowan never seemed in sync until late in the game and the Terps were trying to fight out of a deep hole.
2. Maryland needs to use the athleticism of Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith as a weapon.
The most glaring stat was that Fernando took just four shots, getting all of his offense on a three-point play late in the first half. It was a season low in points — he was even outscored by Trueblood — and tied his season low in shots taken.
It’s hard to take shots when you’re being constantly double teamed, or even triple teamed, as was the case Thursday. It’s also hard to post up when you’re not that close to the basket in the first place, which has long been a problem with Maryland’s big men under Turgeon.
Unlike some of Maryland’s other big men who played for Turgeon, Fernando is quicker going to the basket and better in the air than any of them. So why not set screens to free him up and throw him a few lobs? Why not let him get the ball facing the basket and pulling up for a jumper?
Along with former Mount Saint Joseph teammate Darryl Morsell, Smith was one of the few Terps who seemed to be engaged in the first half, getting six points and three rebounds.
Smith and Morsell tied for a team-best -3 plus-minus in the first half, and the Terps trailed by 12 at halftime. Smith finished the game with eight points, five rebounds and the same team-best -3, tied with Cowan, in 24 minutes.
Turgeon was asked earlier in the week whether he was still comfortable with Smith taking 3-point shots. Coming off a game when he made three of six 3-pointers in a 69-60 win over Minnesota, Turgeon said he was.
But after missing his first shot Thursday on a 3-pointer on Maryland’s second possession and missing all three 3-pointers he tried, it might be time for Turgeon to pull in the reins a little on using “Stix” as a stretch-4.
While he still has trouble posting up against bigger, stronger players, the skinny freshman is still better than average going downhill and can be quick getting to lobs for dunks.
This is not a new problem for Maryland. The Terps never took advantage of Jake Layman’s athleticism during his four years in College Park or even Kevin Huerter’s during his two years.
3. At this stage, Turgeon has nothing to lose by having the Terps play fast.
One of the biggest concerns when Turgeon was hired eight years ago was how slow his teams had played at both Texas A&M and Wichita State. He was known as a coach who won mostly with defense, not offense.
That’s still the case at Maryland, but given the way his team has lost many of its games during what appears to be another late-season slide, it might be time for Turgeon to speed things up.
Sure it’s probably going to result in more turnovers than the 11 the Terps made Thursday, but interestingly only four came in the second half when Maryland was forced to take chances playing catchup.
Even if Maryland makes a bunch of turnovers, the Terps will give themselves more possessions in which to score. With the talent they possess, especially in terms of shooters, they could outscore many teams playing faster.
Think of it this way: How many times have you been on a highway and seen the car in the left lane in front of you driving 20 mph under the speed limit and nearly causing a couple of accidents in the process?
When Maryland plays its next game in the NCAA tournament, the Terps will be in a similar situation as they were against the Cornhuskers as the likely favorite and the higher seed.
At this stage, with the fan base fed up with these postseason losses, why not do something different?
It can’t be any worse than what has happened the past three seasons. Maryland is the only Big Ten team not to win a game in the league’s postseason tournament.