COLLEGE PARK — Mark Turgeon was honest throughout his first five seasons at Maryland about his inability at times to settle on a rotation, frustrating some fans with his insistence about coaching by feel rather than formula.
It took Turgeon little time this season to find his starting lineup, one that has included three freshmen for all but the first two games. Coming to a similar conclusion about his bench is a different story.
While junior guard Jaylen Brantley's minutes have been pretty steady since he established himself as a reliable backup to Melo Trimble and Anthony Cowan, the minutes of the rest coming off Maryland's bench have fluctuated greatly.
Going into Saturday's road game at Illinois (12-5, 2-2), Turgeon admits that he's still dealing with some uncertainty because of injuries, inconsistencies and just plain inconclusive performances.
"It's a balancing act," Turgeon said after practice Friday. "Guys have been working hard. Practices have been great and guys are taking advantage of the chances they are getting, which is important for our success."
The lingering absence of 7-1 junior center Michal Cekovsky because of a foot injury has left the Terps with a pair of undersized backups behind senior Damonte Dodd in 6-8 senior L.G. Gill and 6-9 redshirt junior Ivan Bender.
The return to form for redshirt sophomore guard Dion Wiley after sitting out last season with a torn meniscus has further been slowed by a couple of nagging injuries this season, most recently a sore back.
The shooting slump by junior wing Jared Nickens, which showed signs of ending when he hit all four of his 3-pointers in last Saturday's road win at Michigan, has also contributed to Turgeon's decision-making.
"Luckily for us, we have 13 players on scholarship, and we've been able to play through injuries to this point," Turgeon said. "I'd like to get Dion back 100 percent, I'd like to get Ceko back 100 percent, so we'd have them in the games.
"We've had enough guys where I can [say] 'If he's not doing well, I can try somebody else.' It's worked for us so far. We're thin, especially against big teams. Damonte had to play out of his mind the other night for us to be great defensively against Indiana."
One thing is clear: For Maryland (15-2, 3-1) to continue its success over the first two years in the Big Ten, Turgeon needs to get more consistent production and effort from his bench.
In Maryland's first four league games, the Terps have averaged 21.5 points off the bench, including 31 in an 84-59 win over the Fighting Illini Dec. 27 at Xfinity Center.
Their lowest total? A dozen points five days later in a 67-65 loss to Nebraska.
It isn't a new issue.
A year ago, after Turgeon finally moved Diamond Stone into the starting lineup shortly after he scored a freshman school record 39 points against Penn State off the bench, the Terps struggled to get much in the way of offensive production from their reserves.
"I feel that this bench production is way more than last year, I feel like everyone's more confident," said Brantley, who has made the biggest jump of any of Maryland's reserves in that area. "Jared's better than he was at the beginning of the season, I'm just trying to play as confident as I can."
Jones went 15-for-19 from the field and sank 12 of 14 free throws to match the school's previous single-game high, set by Marissa Coleman.
By Gene Wange
Jan 11, 2017 at 8:42 PM
College basketball analyst Dan Bonner, who has seen the Terps play in person a handful of times in his duties for ESPN and the Big Ten Network, said that getting offensive production from Wiley, Nickens and Brantley is paramount to Maryland being able to keep winning.
"If you look at the games they played really successfully, Brantley has come off the bench and played well or Nickens has made some shots or Wiley has made some shots," Bonner said this week. "I just think those guys are exceedingly important and they have to produce on a regular basis.
"Melo Trimble figured out very early in his career how to help his team when he wasn't scoring. Jared Nickens hasn't figured that out yet. How can you be a positive factor and help the team win when you aren't necessarily putting the ball in the basket? Maybe he has to score. Maybe that's his role."
Unlike the Michigan game, when Nickens provided a huge lift in 17 minutes when the offense seemed to be stagnating, he did enough during a couple of stints against Indiana that added up to 10 minutes to keep the Terps competitive on the defensive end.
"He's a veteran," Turgeon said. "He made two huge free throws. I did think he guarded well. They did try to go at him a couple of times and he handled it well. His team defense has been great. And they guarded him a little bit different and so will Illinois. But that opens the floor for us."
Brantley, whose performance this season was almost unexpected after he struggled to make the transition from junior college a year ago, said Friday that the performance of the bench for most of the season has allowed Turgeon to make substitutions more assuredly than he has in the past.
"I think it gives Coach Turgeon a lot of confidence in us," Brantley said Friday. "Obviously the starters are going to get a break at some point, so you've got to bring more energy and intensity when they come out of the game so he can feel comfortable putting them on the bench."