COLLEGE PARK — A discouraging performance at Madison Square Garden on Saturday sent shock waves reverberating all the way to the Maryland campus before Tuesday’s game against Northwestern.
What if the team’s five freshmen, who were such a big part in a surprising 7-1 start for the Terps in the Big Ten, had hit the proverbial wall?
What if the the back-to-back losses to No. 6 Michigan State in East Lansing and to Big Ten bottom-feeder Illinois in New York were the beginning of another second half fade by Maryland?
A convincing 18-point win over the struggling Wildcats might not be enough to convince many — especially coach Mark Turgeon’s critics — that the loss to the Illini was merely a blip.
More answers will be found as the Terps head on the road Friday at No. 24 Wisconsin to start a stretch of four of five away from Xfinity Center.
Here are three takeaways from Maryland’s 70-52 win over Northwestern:
1. Forced to play much of the second half without Anthony Cowan Jr., Maryland became a dominant inside team.
Turgeon has always been the stubborn type, whether it’s continually sticking to the man-to-man defensive principles he learned from Larry Brown at Kansas or keeping Cowan on the court no matter how he is playing.
In a win at Minnesota earlier this month, Turgeon switched to a rarely used 3-2 zone defense because of foul trouble on Bruno Fernando, as well as the fact that the Terps couldn’t stop the Gophers late in the first half or at the start of the second half.
The result? Maryland shut down Minnesota’s inside game, forced the Gophers into taking some ill-advised 3-pointers and went on a game-changing run that ended with the Terps winning easily for the second of three straight Big Ten road wins.
Something similar occurred in the second half against Northwestern on Tuesday.
After Cowan was called for a Flagrant 1 foul — his third personal — with 5.2 seconds left in the first half after getting tangled with Wildcats guard Anthony Gaines, Turgeon decided smartly to sit out his team’s leading scorer to start the second half.
With the Terps up 11 at halftime, Turgeon had some wiggle room. After sophomore guard Darryl Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph) hit a 3-pointer on Maryland’s second possession, Turgeon had his guards look to go inside.
While Morsell missed three straight layups, the Terps either drove to the basket or passed to Fernando and freshman forward Jalen Smith (Mount Saint Joseph) for dunks and layups. Fernando even found Smith for a dunk.
It showed two things.
The strength of Maryland’s offense is its two big men, who combined for 46 points and 19 rebounds. Perhaps as important is the fact that the Terps are more than capable of playing at a high level, even if Cowan is in foul trouble.
The addition of freshman guards Eric Ayala and Serrel Smith Jr., as well as freshman wing Aaron Wiggins, gives Turgeon the luxury of not wearing Cowan out. Given that he only played 18 minutes Tuesday, Cowan should be fresh for Wisconsin.
2. ‘Stix’ is getting stronger physically, but he still needs to relax.
Jalen “Stix” Smith is clearly a big-time talent, one of the most polished offensive big men Turgeon has had during his eight seasons at Maryland. He also probably shows his nerves more than any potential star the Terps have had, more at home than on the road.
Smith got off to another shaky start at Xfinity Center, missing a couple of early layups that rimmed out, not catching the ball cleanly and trying to force up a couple of shots inside when there was little chance of making them.
It took a little midcourt encouragement from Fernando for the 6-foot-10 forward to calm down, and once he did, he looked every bit the part of the former Mount Saint Joseph star and McDonald’s All American, along with being a future first-round NBA draft pick.
While Fernando’s 22 points and 10 rebounds were certainly the most eye-popping stat line — it was his fourth straight double double and 13th of the season — Smith’s 14 points and nine rebounds were just as, if not more, significant.
Once he got going, Smith’s confidence was obvious. It also looked as if he is starting to get a bit stronger with the ball, the result of extra strength-and-conditioning sessions and teammates, as well as coaches, being more physical with him in practice.
Some of Smith’s best games this season have come on the road in the Big Ten, including back-to-back performances of 16 points and six rebounds at Rutgers and a season-high 21 points and eight rebounds at Minnesota.
With the Terps about to spend the next couple of weeks on the road — the lone home game coming Feb. 12 against No. 17 Purdue — it could bode well for Smith to show off his skills and not come out looking like a frazzled freshman.
3. Ricky Lindo Jr. is a great glue guy with the potential of being much more.
While Jalen Smith came in with great expectations because of what he did in high school and on the Amateur Athletic Union circuit, fellow freshman Lindo came in with absolutely none after signing with Maryland in early August.
Can you imagine where the Terps might be if Lindo had decided to go through with his plan of playing a post-grad year at a Massachusetts prep school or if Turgeon had gone through with his and redshirted the 6-foot-8 forward from Washington?
Though foul trouble was not a factor Tuesday — Fernando didn’t commit a single foul for the first time all season and Smith had his first foul-free game since early December — Lindo still showed his value.
The stats don’t tell Lindo’s value as much as how the team seems to play when he’s on the court. He’s an above-average defender most nights, and his length and toughness help him get a lot of rebounds that don’t simply fall into his hands.
Lindo has struggled on the offensive end of late, going five straight games without a basket until scoring on a nice drive against Northwestern. A guard until a growth spurt in high school, Lindo seems to view the court from that perspective.
It will be interesting to see what Lindo can do these next few games, starting with Wisconsin. Lindo did a great job in helping contain Ethan Happ in Maryland’s 64-60 win two weeks ago and might be needed again as long as he can stay out of foul trouble.
After Friday’s game, the Terps will face Iowa next week in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes have a pretty good inside presence with junior Tyler Cook and sophomore Luka Garza, whose ability to shoot outside is something that might get Lindo on the floor.
Lindo’s role as a rim protector and rebounder is not going to change much as long as Fernando and Smith remain Terps, but with the benefit of a full off-season weight program and just maturity, he could turn out to be one of Turgeon’s best pickups.