If not for the mistakes made by Illinois late in regulation Sunday, the Maryland men’s basketball team would be looking at its first 0-2 conference start since joining the Big Ten in 2014-15 instead of having a much more palatable 1-1 record when league play resumes next month.
Had the Terps not won, 92-91 in overtime, at State Farm Center, they might still be rehashing what would’ve been their largest second-half collapse (22 points) and the second-most turnovers committed (25) in Mark Turgeon’s seven years as their coach.
“Sunday’s game had a lot to do with the environment and who we were playing,” Turgeon said during a teleconference Wednesday. “I thought we were better against Purdue [committing just seven turnovers]. We’ll keep, and try, getting better with it.”
Sophomores Anthony Cowan Jr., Justin Jackson and Kevin Huerter combine for 74 points, 14 rebounds, 12 assists and three blocks in Maryland's 92-91 overtime win at Illinois on Sunday night, but also for 16 of the team's season-high 25 turnovers.
Beginning with Ohio University’s visit to Xfinity Center on Thursday night, Turgeon will use the five remaining nonleague games to challenge his players to become more efficient, especially when it comes to holding on to the ball.
“Sometimes we get going too fast. Sometimes it’s the environment and who we’re playing, sometimes it’s the length of somebody’s zone or the speed or quickness of the other team,” Turgeon said. “It’s a number of things. … But there are correctable ones.”
Longtime college basketball analyst Dan Bonner, who will work his fourth Terps game of the season Thursday, said it’s something Turgeon and his staff will have to correct before the Big Ten restarts league play Jan. 2 against Penn State.
“As a team, you develop a reputation for being turnover-prone and that affects the way other teams prepare for you and you get more pressure maybe that you might get otherwise,” Bonner said. “This is a reputation they have to diminish or it’s going to be after them all year long.”
With the Terps last in the Big Ten in turnovers per game (17.0), as well as in turnover margin (minus-5.1 per game) and assist-to-turnover ratio (0.8), Turgeon said part of the problem is a young team adjusting to different defenses almost every game.
“We’ve played so many crazy defenses, we haven’t really been able to settle into anything," Turgeon said.
Turgeon’s teams have had problems with committing more turnovers than their opponents for most of his tenure in College Park, but never more than this season. Maryland entered Wednesday’s games tied for 331st out of 351 Division I teams in committing turnovers, and tied for 306th at forcing them (11.9 per game).
The 25 turnovers against the Illini were one shy of tying the most by any Maryland team under Turgeon. The Terps had 26 in an 89-63 defeat to Iona in his fourth game as Terps coach in 2011-12 as well as in an 83-81 win over No. 2 Duke a year later.
Bonner said the Terps are typical of many college teams where players are being used in different roles than the previous season. In Maryland’s case, sophomores Anthony Cowan Jr., Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson have all seen their responsibility expanded.
“I think it’s a matter of time because these guys are really good players,” Bonner said. “What they’re going through right now is they’re struggling with the one issue that you have to solve if you are going to be a good offensive player or if you’re going to be a good offensive team.”
“It's when to pass, when to dribble and when to shoot,” Bonner said. “It sounds simple, but I think early in the season, especially early in the season with people filling new roles, it’s a process and Maryland is going through the process.”
Bonner said Huerter is struggling more when it comes to turnovers than any other Terp. While he calls Huerter “a fabulous player,” Bonner said the 6-foot-7 sophomore’s transition from spot-up shooter to playmaker and scorer is more of a change than the those being made by Cowan or Jackson.
“I know he has the skill to do it, but I know it’s an adjustment for him,” Bonner said. “You’re putting Kevin Huerter in a different role, so that means you’re putting other guys in different roles. I don’t think it’s a bad role, but I think he has get used to it so he can protect the ball a little bit more.”
Huerter, who committed just 46 turnovers last season in 971 minutes, has seen his number of giveaways rise dramatically (30 in 334 minutes) this season. Cowan also has 30 (in 350 minutes) after he made seven at Illinois. Jackson has made 29 (in 302 minutes).
“The head-scratching turnovers for me are almost exclusively ones that Kevin makes trying to make something happen,” Bonner said. “The games I’ve been at, he’s made some fabulous passes. I think he has to learn against major college competition when to do it and when not to do it.”
Huerter, who had a career-high five turnovers against Illinois after first reaching that number in back-to-back games against Butler and Bucknell this season, said he doesn’t think the turnovers are simply the result of being careless.
“Everyone’s trying to be unselfish, pass the ball, make the right play,” Huerter said Monday. “Sometimes it’s getting sped up, playing too fast. We feel we have the personnel to play up and down, increase possessions throughout a game.
“I think we’re really, really effective when we’re on the break, and we have a lot of guys who are good at finishing in transition. It’s trying to find the balance between knowing when to slow it up, knowing when to go, knowing the right passes to make.”
Sometimes the right passes can wind up in the wrong hands. On Sunday, Huerter fed redshirt junior Ivan Bender for what should’ve been a wide-open dunk or layup, but the 6-9 forward inexplicably passed the ball off, with the Illini getting a turnover.
Integrating freshman guard Darryl Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph) and freshman center Bruno Fernando, as well as redshirt junior guard Dion Wiley into the rotation has also added to the transition. Despite helping in many areas, Morsell has nearly twice as many turnovers (24 in 205 minutes) as assists (13).
“I think when everyone starts understanding their role, our plays are going to come along a lot better,” said Cowan, who had a career-high 27 points Sunday to go with six assists and three steals. “It seems we're going too fast sometimes. When we slow down and see what we’ve got, I think it’s going to be a lot easier for us.”