When a team starts its conference season as well as the Maryland men’s basketball team did, winning seven of its first eight Big Ten games, a stretch of three losses in four games is a sign that something isn’t right.
With the No. 21 Terps, it goes way beyond what has transpired over the past two weeks.
Maryland fans are understandably nervous — not to mention upset — that another late-season collapse might be imminent. Recent history suggests that Mark Turgeon’s teams struggle once opponents figure the Terps out.
There might have been some of that Friday night at the Kohl Center, where Maryland watched two nine-point leads shrink to five by halftime and where, after No. 24 Wisconsin quickly tied the game, the Terps built their lead back to seven, only to lose it again.
While the Badgers’ late 12-1 run was reminiscent of Illinois’ 26-10 finishing kick at Madison Square Garden a week earlier, the circumstances were a bit different. The Terps were on the road Friday, and Wisconsin has Ethan Happ.
Both were factors: Maryland’s two big men, sophomore Bruno Fernando and freshman Jalen Smith (Mount Saint Joseph), got into foul trouble early in the second half. And Happ got help from the refs and his teammates in taking over the game.
Here are three takeaways from Maryland’s 69-61 loss:
1 . Anthony Cowan Jr. reverted a bit to last season’s form, and needs to trust his teammates more.
In Maryland’s 64-60 win over Wisconsin on Jan. 14, Cowan was the hero, with his clutch 3-pointer in the final minute proving to be the game’s biggest play.
Cowan didn’t shoot well in that game, either, going 4-for-14 from the field and 2-for-6 on 3-pointers, but he made 11 of 13 free throws. On Friday, he shot 4-for-16 — or “4-for-whatever,” as Turgeon said afterward — and 2-for-9 on 3-pointers but was only 1-for-2 from the line.
The biggest issue with Cowan’s performance was the fact that he didn’t take advantage of having a teammate who was in the midst of a career night.
Freshman point guard Eric Ayala hit his first five shots and finished the game 7-for-11 overall, including 4-for-5 beyond the arc, scoring a team-high 18 points.
Ayala, who had started to come out of a recent shooting slump in the second half against Northwestern on Tuesday, missed just one of six attempts in the first half as he went 3-for-3 from deep.
Had Cowan kept looking for him, Ayala might have gone for 25 or more.
During a key juncture in the game early in the second half, as the Badgers came back from a 40-33 deficit to tie the game, Cowan took four shots in a span of a little over four minutes, missing them all, while finding sophomore guard Darryl Morsell once for an assist.
In that stretch, none of the other Terps shot more than once. Part of the stretch came with Fernando and Smith out of the game, sitting with three fouls each, so Cowan needed to be more assertive. But he has had a history in his career of trying to take over.
There have certainly been games when he has, but in a game when one of his teammates is hot, Cowan should be more a facilitator. He is much more effective, and Maryland is clearly a better team, when he’s looking to set up his teammates than when he’s hunting for his shot.
2. Until he gets stronger, Jalen Smith should be playing more on the perimeter.
It’s becoming increasingly obvious that the McDonald’s All-American is not ready to be a consistent low-post threat.
When the 6-foot-10, 215-pound freshman tries to assert himself near the basket, he often gets blocked, loses the ball or rushes his shot. It’s reminiscent of some of the growing pains Fernando had a year ago, but he was a lot stronger than Smith is now.
That’s not to say Smith shouldn’t be on the floor. But he’s seemingly much more comfortable as a catch-and-shoot mid-range and 3-point shooter, with an occasional drive thrown in.
Most teams have only one true big. If Smith does have to post up, it should be when Fernando is out of the game.
Even then, he needs to be able to get the ball out to shooters and not try to spend precious seconds of the shot clock trying to muscle his way to the basket.
That might happen next season if — and it’s still an if — Smith returns for his sophomore year. But for now, Turgeon needs to figure out more of a high-low offense with “Stix” and Fernando in the lineup.
One option might be flipping where Smith and his former high school teammate, Morsell, are used in Maryland’s offense. Morsell has become stronger as a sophomore and would get far fewer shots blocked against opponents his size.
3. Turgeon is not doing himself or his team any favors complaining about the Terps’ free-throw disparity.
The officiating was certainly one-sided in favor of the Badgers, and Happ in particular, who took more free throws (12) than Maryland (eight), got away with at least one travel on a layup, and was the beneficiary of a phantom call against both Fernando and Smith. It was almost comical to see Happ complain about a foul after he raked Fernando across the forearm on one play.
That said, the Terps have won their share of games in College Park by getting the same kind of favorable home-court officiating. Just ask Penn State coach Pat Chambers, whose Nittany Lions have lost close games in College Park the past two years while getting outshot a combined 59-10 at the free-throw line.
This is really the first time all season when there’s been such a noticeable disparity in Maryland’s free-throw attempts in a road game. Given that the Terps still have to play at Nebraska, Michigan and Iowa over the next two weeks, it probably won’t be the last.
With Turgeon also having picked up his only technical foul of the season in the waning moments of the Illinois game, when he told the officials that the officiating was to blame for the loss in New York, he needs to keep his griping to a minimum. It rang hollow Friday night, when he should’ve been taking more ownership for why his team is losing.