State College, Pa. — Over the course of a college basketball season, even good teams suffer inexplicable defeats. That’s why no team has gone through a season unbeaten since Indiana in 1975-76.
Even UNLV lost to Duke in the NCAA semifinals in 1991, when the Runnin’ Rebels had not lost a game and were a year removed from crushing the Blue Devils in the 1990 title game by 30 points.
So No. 17 Maryland’s loss to Penn State at Bryce Jordan Center Wednesday was not historic. No. 7 Michigan, which plays the Terps on Sunday in College Park, had lost here as the nation’s sixth-ranked team a little over two weeks ago.
But in the world that many Maryland fans live in — where memories go back to and fingers point at similar defeats for Mark Turgeon’s teams the past few seasons — it was all too familiar and equally disturbing.
Here are 3 takeaways from Maryland’s 78-61 loss to the Nittany Lions:
1. The Terps can win when either Anthony Cowan Jr. or Bruno Fernando play poorly, but not both.
Nearly from the outset, it was clear that both of Maryland’s top scorers — and defenders — were struggling to find any kind of rhythm.
Coming off strong performances in back-to-back wins at then-No. 21 Iowa and against Ohio State, Cowan had a tough time even getting shots against a defense geared to limiting his touches.
The junior guard didn’t take his first shot for nearly eight minutes and his first points came on a 3-point play with a little over a minute left and the Terps on their way to a 42-20 halftime deficit.
Fernando got his shots, but seemed to be off-balance taking most of them, starting with a hook in the lane that didn’t come close and then missing in close in a sequence when Jalen Smith also missed twice inside.
The sophomore center got his first basket on a follow of a missed three-pointer by freshman wing Aaron Wiggins with 14:40 left in the first half, but only scored one other basket in the half while committing four of Maryland’s eight turnovers.
Fernando and Cowan wound up sharing 10 of their team’s 17 turnovers, with Fernando getting the only two assists registered by either player. Along with the turnovers, Fernando appeared to be in a funk for most of the game, and at one point sat by himself as his team huddled on the court before being pulled over by an assistant coach.
Though both played better in the second half after being pulled with the rest of the starting lineup with the Terps down 49-24, Cowan and Fernando had better show up together Sunday if Maryland is to have any chance against the Wolverines.
2. Was giving his starters a second chance better than Turgeon sending a message that their performance was unacceptable?
When Turgeon sent in a completely different unit with 15:31 remaining and Maryland down 24, there were some who wondered whether the starters were done for the evening. Admittedly, I was one of them.
Two years ago, in a road loss at Wisconsin, Turgeon had done something similar when he pulled several players, including star guard Melo Trimble late in the game when it appeared the outcome was still in doubt.
Perhaps it might have been a drastic move to keep his starters on the bench for most of the second half, and the thought of a potential 30-point loss (or more) going with little-used reserves might have had implications for seeding when the NCAA tournament selection committee considered Maryland’s resume.
While the starters were certainly more active when Turgeon brought them in a couple of minutes later, you have to wonder if a little more bench time might have sent a clear message to his team that this kind of no-show performance can’t happen again.
3. Is it time to go to a four-guard lineup?
In Maryland’s recent wins over Iowa and Ohio State, Turgeon went for long stretches using Fernando and four perimeter players. In both cases, Turgeon said it was done to get out on the opposing team’s 3-point shooters.
Turgeon didn’t have that decision to make Wednesday, mostly because the damage was done early and it was apparent that the Terps were not going to recover from their horrendous start. But that situation is going to keep coming up.
The problem is that it will mean Turgeon taking Smith out of the starting lineup, something that he simply doesn’t want to do. When he talks about players allowing their offense to affect their defense, the former McDonald’s All-American and Mount Saint Joseph star is at the top of the list.
When Smith hit an early 3-pointer against Penn State — his first 3-pointer in five games after nine straight misses — it appeared that the 6-foot-10 forward might be coming out of his recent shooting slump.
But Smith, who had two shots blocked inside on the previous possession, continued to get pushed around inside. It’s not for a lack of effort, but at some point Turgeon has to go with his best lineup and right now it appears that means four guards.
While playing sophomore guard Darryl Morsell as a small-ball power forward is not always the best option, getting freshman wing Aaron Wiggins into the starting lineup might help get the Terps off to better starts and will help open space inside for Fernando.
It also might give Smith, who seems to be trying too hard at times to get his offensive game on track, a moment to take a breath and relax going into the postseason. It will certainly make the Terps a little harder to guard, as Maryland has found out trying to stop teams that shoot well from the perimeter.