Listed at 261 pounds, Oakland redshirt senior Xavier Hill-Mais was the biggest player to take the court against the Maryland’s men’s basketball team so far this season.
Don’t tell Terps freshman Makhel Mitchell that.
“He was big,” Mitchell said. “But he didn’t look that big towards me.”
Mitchell, listed at 6-foot-10 and 235 pounds, was an impactful piece off coach Mark Turgeon’s bench in Maryland’s 80-50 victory over Oakland on Saturday. He’ll look for a repeat performance when the No. 6 Terps face Fairfield at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Xfinity Center.
In Mitchell’s 16 minutes on the court ― more than he played in the first two games combined — Maryland outscored the Grizzlies by 23, the third-best plus-minus among Terps behind upperclassmen Anthony Cowan Jr. and Darryl Morsell. He was in for the entirety of the Terps’ 11-0 run to end the first half, which took them from a two-point advantage to a 13-point halftime lead before they blew out Oakland in the second half.
The performance came after Turgeon elected to start Mitchell’s twin brother, Makhi, for a second straight game, but Makhel Mitchell got consideration for the opportunity.
“Makhel was terrific,” Turgeon said after the game. “Makhel was better in practice all week except for [Friday]. I was going to start Makhel, but he took the day off [Friday], so I don’t think he earned it. And then he was terrific [in the game].”
Makhel first took the floor Saturday when Makhi committed two quick fouls less than 90 seconds in. After another stay on the bench, Makhel gave Maryland a one-point lead with two free throws, then extended the Terps’ advantage with what Turgeon called “an incredible play,” a fast-break layup off a Cowan bounce pass.
The free throws and layup provided Makhel’s only points on the afternoon, but he added four rebounds while not committing a foul or a turnover. His defense also left Turgeon impressed, especially with Maryland working on a new defensive style where the Terps doubled the opposing team’s big man. Turgeon worked the strategy into practice ahead of Maryland’s prior game against Rhode Island but didn’t put it into a game until Saturday.
“We worked hard in practice at [defense],” Makhel said. “We really prepared for our opponents. We just worked hard, and then it all went over into the game.
“Everything is tough. Freshmen get called for fouling a lot, so you just have to learn how to work around it, and that starts in practice.”
Makhi Mitchell is a prime example of freshmen’s propensity to foul. He got his first career start against Rhode Island, then played only four minutes while committing four fouls. He finished with three fouls Saturday, playing a meager six minutes.
“Makhi fouls in practice,” Turgeon said. “If he stops fouling in practice, it usually takes two or three weeks to carry over to a game, so we’ll see. I know he wants to play. I know he doesn’t want to foul.
“I thought he played a little bit smarter in the second half. He had a foul in the second half running [Hill-Mais] off the line, who already made a couple 3s, so I didn’t mind that one as much.”
Asked Monday if Makhel’s progress has offset some of Makhi’s foul problems, Turgeon said: “The thing for me right now, the two of them make one body, right? If we were going to sub a certain way and Makhi picks up a couple of fouls, OK, Makhel goes and gets some [minutes]. If Makhel screws up, then Makhi goes and gets some. Pretty soon, they’ll become two different [players], but for me right now, they’re just one guy."
Coming out of Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, Makhi was considered the better prospect of the twins, with 247Sports having him as a four-star prospect with Makhel as a three-star. It didn’t help that Makhel, the younger of the pair, repeatedly missed time with injuries.
“I went through a lot in high school, and I never put myself down,” Makhel said. “I always kept working hard, doing the extra things to get myself back right. I think that prepared me for Maryland. My mindset never changed. After every injury, it never changed, so I just worked hard and just want the best for myself.”
With both twins asserting themselves as part of Maryland’s rotation, sophomore Jalen Smith, a Mount Saint Joseph product, routinely works with the young big men in practice. The trio all help one another improve, Makhel said.
“They really push me,” he said. “We push each other. We have high expectations for each other, too, so we know what we’re all capable of. We just work hard in practice, push each other, motivate and never put each other down because we are still a family. We just work hard.”
In Makhel’s case, it’s paid off early.
“I think the game, he’s starting to get a better feel for it,” sophomore guard Aaron Wiggins said. “He’s a little bit more comfortable. [Saturday], he played really well. He gave us some really good minutes that first half. Him stepping up, playing hard, he helped change the game a little bit. He’s matured, and I think he’s just a little bit more comfortable.”
“He’s a lot better than I was anticipating,” Turgeon said of Makhel, “and he just gets better every day.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Don Markus contributed to this article.