COLLEGE PARK — Mark Turgeon seemed to be only half-joking, but when asked Friday how Saturday night’s game against Seton Hall had come about, the Maryland men’s basketball coach might have been a little too honest in his response.
“We needed a game, they needed a game, we both thought we weren’t going to be any good,” Turgeon said. “They lost a lot of starters, we lost some people. We thought we were going to be both young teams. We just thought it was going to be a really good game for both of us.”
In the first of a home-and-home series, the Terps showed their youth and some of their glaring deficiencies. The Pirates, who had beaten then-No. 9 Kentucky recently, showed their toughness and they might be a lot better than many, including coach Kevin Willard, told Turgeon.
Here are 3 takeaways from Maryland’s 78-74 loss to Seton Hall:
1. With an early season schedule that didn’t have a lot of NCAA tournament resume-building opportunities, the Terps are about out of them before the Big Ten resumes.
The defeat to the Pirates was the second at home this season. It marks the first time that Maryland has lost two games on its homecourt before Christmas since 2013-14, when Turgeon’s team lost to Oregon State and Boston University.
While the quality of the teams the Terps have lost to this season is a lot better — Seton Hall and then-No. 4 Virginia at home, Purdue in the Big Ten road opener — the undeniable fact is that Maryland’s resume seems pretty bare after 12 games.
Given that Radford was an NCAA tournament team a year ago and has already won at then-No. 17 Texas as well as at Notre Dame this season, Maryland’s next game Dec. 29 could give the Terps another chance before No. 25 Nebraska visits Jan. 1.
2. If late-game mistakes are any indication, Anthony Cowan Jr. might again be playing too many minutes.
As a freshman, Cowan played a little over 29 minutes a game and didn’t seem to tire out until late in the season, if even then. Turgeon had the luxury that year of moving then-junior Melo Trimble back to the point or using sophomore Jaylen Brantley in relief.
As a sophomore, Cowan played 37 minutes a game, the most of any player in the Big Ten, because Trimble had departed and the Terps were virtually without a backup at point guard. As well as Cowan played, his late-game decision-making was called into question in several close losses.
Now as a junior, Cowan is playing a team-high 34.1 minutes a game and is sharing the ballhandling responsibilities with freshman Eric Ayala Jr. In the losses to Purdue and Seton Hall, Cowan’s big baskets late in games have been overshadowed by even bigger mistakes.
In a critical juncture against the Pirates, Cowan had the ball stripped as he drove, got a shot blocked in the lane and then seemed to have some miscommunication with Jalen Smith that led to a clumsy foul by the freshman forward. Seton Hall went on a 6-0 run to take control of the game.
It might not solely be the result of the minutes Cowan is playing, but Turgeon might have to either cut down on Cowan’s minutes earlier in games or simply give more of the point guard duties to Ayala late in the game to see if the offense runs more effectively.
Freshman shooting guard Serrel Smith Jr. seems to be over his early-season jitters and could fill those minutes effectively as a complement to Ayala. Smith played just 7½ minutes against Seton Hall, but the Terps were plus-6 when he was on the floor.
3. Until opposing teams prove they can effectively contain Bruno Fernando, the Terps need to ride their big man even more than they do now.
When he was a freshman last season, the 6-10 center usually dominated or disappeared. Foul trouble and Fernando’s own nightly battle with his emotions often negated his obvious talent and potential.
While Fernando has occasionally been in foul trouble and has shown a couple of unneeded outbursts this season, his patience and power in the post is undeniable. It will only grow as the season goes on, and his continued maturity is vital to Maryland’s success.
When the Big Ten season resumes, Fernando should be Turgeon’s first scoring option and Jalen Smith, the former McDonald’s All American from Mount Saint Joseph, should be right up there with Cowan as the second choice depending on the opponent’s defense.
Basketball is a game of matchups and Maryland’s two big men — Fernando in particular — could become a season-long nightmare for Big Ten opponents if given enough touches down in the post for the Terps.