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Backcourt chemistry for point guards still part of Maryland's recipe for success coming out of break

Ever since Melo Trimble and Dez Wells shared the backcourt for Maryland during the 2014-15 season, coach Mark Turgeon hasn’t been blessed with a pair of guards who seemed to complement each other so well.

There was the perfect combination of a freshman quietly confident in his skills and a senior who had been the team’s de facto captain since he arrived as a sophomore. Both were capable of taking over games and only occasionally did Trimble defer to Wells.

The team won 28 games — half coming against league competition in its inaugural Big Ten season — and returned to the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years, making its first trip under Turgeon. Finding the right chemistry since has been a continuing battle for Turgeon and Maryland.

It has seemed at times this season that junior Anthony Cowan Jr. and freshman Eric Ayala have a similar vibe. Still, at crunch time in Maryland’s Dec. 6 loss at Purdue, Ayala and the other freshmen appeared to defer too much to Cowan.

Helped by six practices in the 10-day break since Maryland’s last game on Dec. 11, Ayala and Cowan hope to be back in sync heading into Saturday’s game against Seton Hall at Xfinity Center. Those workouts seem to have helped with their on-court bonding.

“Our relationship has grown on and off the court. He’s becoming like that big brother to me,” Ayala said after practice Friday. “It’s shown in our play [at practice]. It’s kind of like a dual threat. Whoever’s got [the ball] can go and run the offense.”

While it’s more of an adjustment for Cowan moving from point guard to play more off the ball — a transition that Trimble struggled with at times when Cowan was a freshman — Cowan said the recent stretch of practice helped.

“He’s done a great job of finding open shots for me,” Cowan said of Ayala. “He’s definitely helped me out. I’m definitely trying to look out for that as well.”

The biggest problem is still turnovers. Though the Terps committed a season-low eight in their last game — a 94-71 win over Loyola Maryland on Dec. 11 — Turgeon knows how important it will be to cut down the mistakes in Big Ten play.

Cowan is not the only culprit, but given that he often has the ball in his hands in situations with the shot clock winding down — as Trimble did all three years he played for Maryland — he needs to be as efficient offensively as he is persistent defensively.

“We’ve worked on it, we’ve talked about it. We talked about it too much,” Turgeon said. “I think a lot of his turnovers he can fix. So hopefully some of the things that we practiced here will help. He’s practiced at a high level. We’ll see if it carries over.”

Ayala said it’s an easy fix.

“Just playing with patience, making the easy play, not going for the haymaker every time,” Ayala said.

Cowan felt the same way.

“Just simple passes, and then just see where shots are in our offense,” Cowan said.

Part of the problem at Purdue was Maryland found itself in late-shot-clock situations a lot, particularly down the stretch. It came down to whether Cowan could make plays for himself as well as his teammates. He struggled doing both.

Cowan’s recent spate of turnovers has been a concern. After making eight turnovers in Maryland’s first five games, Cowan has committed 26 over the past six, including a season-high six in a 66-59 win over Penn State on Dec. 1.

It’s one of the reasons why Ayala has assumed a large chunk of the responsibility running the team. The 19-year-old Ayala, who spent a post-graduate year after high school at IMG Academy, has made 24 turnovers the entire season.

“Coach trusts me and everybody else on this team to make the right play, to make the easy one,” Ayala said. “Whether it’s to Anthony or Bruno [Fernando] or anybody, it’s all about making the right basketball play and not deferring to one another.”

Ayala is hoping the past 10 days have helped the Terps take that approach, not only Saturday against Seton Hall but in the restart of the Big Ten in January. Maryland plays its final nonconference game Dec. 29 against Radford.

It’s not just the chemistry between the guards that will dictate how successful the Terps will be this season but also the chemistry between Fernando and freshman forward Jalen Smith (Mount Saint Joseph).

It’s also dependent on Turgeon managing the five freshmen who are in the rotation, three of whom started the last game. Along with Ayala and Smith, wing Aaron Wiggins started against Loyola.

Turgeon is hopeful that practice makes perfect, or at least makes the team better.

“I think we’ve really gotten [better]. Now we’ll see,” Turgeon said Friday. “I think we’ve implemented some things that will help us. I think the guys are very confident with it. And I think we’ve practiced well.”

Said Ayala: “Playing with each other, I think our trust for each other and our relationships and our bonds have built over the last couple of weeks. It’s been helping our offense knowing a guy might be in a certain spot, even on defense.”

NOTE: Turgeon said sophomore guard Darryl Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph), who sat out the Loyola Maryland game with a sprained ankle suffered during warmups for the Loyola Chicago game Dec. 8, has practiced the past three days. Though not 100 percent, Morsell “is ready to go,” Turgeon said.

don.markus@baltsun.com

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