For a coach who wants his players to have a short memory, the best kind of team is a young one, since it typically doesn’t have the kind of emotional baggage more experienced teams might have in trying to erase bad memories.
As No. 24 Maryland heads into the last two weeks of the regular season, with only three games nicely spaced apart remaining, coach Mark Turgeon only has to be bringing up what has happened since this season began.
Of the three remaining teams — Penn State on the road Wednesday, No. 7 Michigan at home Sunday and Minnesota at home March 8 — most of the memories are positive, though Turgeon would have teaching moments to look back on for each.
For the Nittany Lions, who Maryland beat in their Big Ten opener Dec. 1, he won’t have to talk much about losing at Bryce Jordan Center the past two years, but remind the Terps that they won’t get as many calls as they did in a 66-59 win this season.
For the Wolverines, who Maryland lost to 65-52 only last Sunday, he won’t have to talk about getting embarrassed at home on senior day by 24 points last season, but remind them how their slow start and sloppy finish in Ann Arbor this year made for a long afternoon.
For the Gophers, who the Terps beat by 15 points in Minneapolis in early January, he won’t have to talk about how they were run off the court at Xfinity Center two seasons ago because Maryland already erased that memory with a solid home win over Richard Pitino’s team last season.
Despite winning four of the last five, there are plenty of things for Turgeon to talk about and the Terps to work on as they try to secure a top-four finish in the Big Ten and a much coveted double-bye in next month’s Big Ten tournament in Chicago.
1. Jalen Smith is letting his offense affect his defense.
As impressive as the play of this year’s freshman class has been, the most perplexing of the group remains the most talented in the 6-10 forward from Baltimore.
Turgeon often says that players tend to struggle more on the defensive end when they can’t make shots at the other end, and that certainly appears to be the case for Smith.
Smith has scored just 18 points in his last three games, including five Saturday, while shooting 5 of 19 from the field (0 of 5 on 3-pointers) and committing eight turnovers, four against Ohio State.
In taking Smith out late in the game when the Buckeyes cut a 14-point deficit to two, Turgeon said afterwards that the Terps were better defensively with Smith’s Mount Saint Joseph teammate, Darryl Morsell, as an undersized power forward.
Given that Minnesota is the only team remaining on the schedule that typically plays as big a lineup as the Terps, it’s something Turgeon will likely do more of, especially if Smith continues to struggle offensively.
2. Serrel Smith Jr. could be an X-factor in the postseason.
The most difficult part for coaches in NCAA tournament games is the quick turnaround and the scouting that is entailed. Unlike Big Ten teams that have already played Maryland, most teams are not going to have much on the freshman guard in their reports.
Of all the freshmen this season, Serrel Smith has probably come the furthest. His career-high 14-point outing on Saturday was more the result of opportunity than Smith suddenly showing the confidence to take shots and an ability to knock them down.
In Maryland’s two previous games, Smith played a total of 15 minutes. But with fellow freshman Eric Ayala leaving the game against the Buckeyes not feeling well and not returning, Smith wound up with 19 minutes.
What he did against Michigan, when he hit a 3-pointer to cut his team’s deficit to just three after the Terps had been down by as many as 15, and at Iowa, when he hit a 3-pointer when Maryland was struggling to get good shots, he did a few times Saturday.
Along with making 4 of 7 from the field, Smith also made 5 of 7 from the free throw line, including all three after getting fouled on a 3-pointer late in the game and the Buckeyes, who once trailed 50-36, down just 57-55. He also helped cause Morsell’s subsequent steal, which led to two more free throws.
Though the minutes and production are certain to drop with Ayala’s expected return to the lineup, Turgeon has the confidence to act on his season-long comment of trying to get a player known for scoring in bunches more court time at crunch time.
3. Xfinity Center can be a very tough homecourt when it’s filled.
Saturday’s game not only attracted former Hall of Fame coach Gary Williams for a rare appearance, as well as ESPN superfan Scott Van Pelt, but it also brought an announced crowd of 17,569 into a building that has been noticeably much more sparse at times this season.
It was not quite a sellout, but it had the same effect. Playing at 2 p.m. on a weekend day was certainly much more favorable to get a big crowd than all the 6:30 p.m. weeknight tipoffs the Terps have been saddled with by the Big Ten and Big Ten Network.
While next Sunday’s game against Michigan is already a sellout — only the second of the season, with the game against Virginia in late November being the first — there’s no excuse for the place not to also be filled for senior night against Minnesota in a couple of weeks.
This team has long been deserving of getting big crowds, as hard as the Terps have played and as fun as they’ve been to watch, especially sophomore center Bruno Fernando. Better late than never, but a lot of Maryland fans have missed out on witnessing one of the more fun teams in recent memory evolve.