An underlying problem for the Maryland basketball team a year ago was its lack of depth, demonstrated by the obvious drop-off in talent and production when coach Mark Turgeon rested his starters. It eventually contributed to the Terps wearing down during the second half of the season.
As the Big Ten season looms at the end of this month, Turgeon is playing a starting lineup that includes three freshmen, and he is still trying to find a rotation off the bench. Due to injuries among his big men and inconsistency in his backup guards, it remains a daily guessing game.
"I like our bench a lot. I look down there and I've got a lot of pieces," Turgeon said before practice Tuesday. "Because of our bench, we were able to win the other night. Jaylen [Brantley] came in and gave us huge minutes. Ceko [Michal Cekovsky] came off the bench in the K-State game and gave us 16 points.
"A lot of it is, the big guys can't get healthy — they've been in and out of the lineup. It's all new to L.G. [Gill]. Then you've three young guys playing [in the starting lineup] trying to learn. Then you have Dion [Wiley], who's really coming off a major injury. …I think just finding that consistency is going to be the key."
Asked about the importance of developing more of a bench presence in the team's last four non-conference games, junior guard Jaylen Brantley said, "I think it's going to be huge to give Coach Turgeon confidence going into conference play. That's the main thing."
What the rotation will look like Wednesday when Maryland (8-1) plays Howard (1-5) at Xfinity Center is tough to predict. It could be based on what happened in Saturday's 71-70 victory over Oklahoma State. Or it could reflect how the reserves looked in practice this week. It might just come down to how the starters play against Howard, a team coming off its first win of the season.
Gill, who many thought was going to replace Robert Carter Jr. at power forward until freshman Justin Jackson emerged as a starter after just two games, said Maryland needs to get a consistent effort from its bench to be successful.
"When the starters or whoever else is having a bad game, it's up to the bench to pick up on the slack, said Gill, who started for most of his last two seasons at Duquesne. "That's what great teams do. If one guy is not doing their job, you've got another guy come in and bring energy off the bench."
Energy hasn't been the issue as much as consistent execution.
Brantley's career-high 22-minute outing against the Cowboys on Saturday produced 12 points and several momentum plays at the defensive end. Gill scored seven points — including his first 3-pointer since coming to Maryland — in 16 minutes.
Wiley played 14 minutes, and while the 6-4 guard continued to struggle with ball handling (two turnovers) and his shot — he's made just nine of 31 shots this year — he picked up five rebounds while being used at power forward when the big men got into foul trouble.
"Little by little, slowly but surely, Dion's getting better. He really is," Turgeon said of Wiley, who is averaging just under four points a game and has scored in double figures just once. "I'd like to think come league time he's even closer to being 100 percent."
Then there's junior wing Jared Nickens, who only had a one-minute cameo against the Cowboys — his shortest stint at a Terp — and was quickly pulled after passing up a corner 3-pointer and forcing a contested 15-foot jump shot. Nickens has now missed 31 of the 36 shots he's attempted, including 21 of 26 threes.
"I still have all the confidence in the world; that's why I keep playing him," Turgeon said. "Every possession mattered in that game the other night and Jaylen was playing well for us and Dion had better minutes so we just stuck with those guys, and you've got to play Melo [Trimble]. It was hard to get him in."
The rotation of the big men has been impacted by injuries to everyone but Gill. The bigs have all suited up together just once, against Kansas State.
Cekovsky missed most of the preseason and the first four games of the season due to hamstring and foot injuries. Dodd, who had his best game of the season with 12 points, eight rebounds and three blocks against Oklahoma State, sat out two games with a concussion.
Redshirt sophomore forward Ivan Bender, who was one of the biggest surprises of the preseason, sustained a fractured wrist in a closed scrimmage. After returning within two weeks he bruised his knee and sat out the past two games.
Turgeon said he expected Bender to practice Tuesday, and to play Wednesday, barring any setbacks.
The Terps would love to get a comfortable lead that would allow them to rest their starters, and against Howard that's certainly a possibility. But the Bison won their last game by 17 points against American, the team the Terps beat by just six in the season opener.
"You always like to have a little more depth and play the guys. I don't know if we're going to be able to do it — let's be honest," Turgeon said. "As a coach you think you're going to do something, it never goes that way. You try to prepare 'em in practice and give 'em opportunities. I'd like to be a much deeper team going into the league than we are right now."