Freshman class promises to give Terps a big boost
Cowan, Huerter, Jackson bring court sense, likely to play key roles immediately
COLLEGE PARK — Even before he first got to see them practice with the team last month, Maryland men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon could sense there was something special about three members of his freshman class.
Point guard Anthony Cowan Jr., guard Kevin Huerter and forward Justin Jackson stood out when the Terps recruited them or watched tape of their games.
Now, as No. 25 Maryland opens the 2016-17 season tonight against American at Xfinity Center, the three freshmen who headline a five-man class that’s ranked in the top 10 nationally are expected to become a major part of Turgeon’s regular rotation — and of the Terps’ future.
“The young guys are ready,” Turgeon said Thursday. “They’re ready to help us.”
Judging by what they did in last week’s exhibition game, the three f reshmen could make the biggest impact of any group Turgeon has had in his six seasons at Maryland. Unlike last year’s only freshman, Diamond Stone, none of this year’s group is considered a one-and-done.
They’ll try to re-energize a team that reached the Sweet 16 last year but lost four starters.
Cowan, a 6-foot, 170-pound guard from St. John’s in Washington, started in the 95-61 exhibition win over Division II Catawba and took over point guard duties when junior Melo Trimble rolled his ankle early in the first half. He said his leadership skills have improved since practice began last month.
“Obviously the last game, Melo went down, I felt like I had to take a bigger role in terms of being more vocal with my teammates in terms of running the offense,” said Cowan, who had 15 points on 5-for-8 shooting to go with five assists in 24 minutes.
Huerter, a 6-7, 190-pound guard who was Mr. Basketball for New York state as a senior at Shenendehowa, said he and the other freshmen have grown accustomed to practices that are longer and more physical than the players were used to in high school.
It’s unusual for a group of freshmen to improve a team’s collective basketball IQ, but that appears to be the case this season.
“To be in Coach Turgeon’s offense, you really have to know how to play the game,” said Huerter, who had eight points and a team-high six assists in 24 minutes of the exhibition game. “I think that was definitely a big emphasis on the type of guys Season opener Tonight, 7 TV: Big Ten Network Radio: 105.7 FM, 980 AM Coach: Mark Turgeon (sixth season, 114-59) 2015-16 record: 27-9, 12-6 (tied for third in the Big Ten) Tournament result: Lost to No. 1 seed Kansas, 79-63, in an NCAA South Region semifinal in Louisville, Ky. Key nonconference games: at Georgetown (Tuesday), vs. Pittsburgh (Nov. 29) Player to watch: Junior point guard Melo Trimble, who returns after initially putting his name into the NBA draft. Trimble sprained his ankle in the exhibition game last week but returned to practice Wednesday. “He had no pain. He actually looked fresh,” Turgeon said. “He’s looked good all summer, all fall, all practice.” Skinny: Despite losing four starters, including NBA second-round draft picks Jake Layman and Diamond Stone, the Terps could be better than last season. A lot will depend on Trimble’s playing as well as he did as a freshman, when he was first-team All-Big Ten (chosen by the media) before playing with an injured hamstring for the second half of last season. The biggest question mark is whether the Terps have enough scoring inside to replace Stone and Robert Carter Jr. What they lose on offense they gain defensively inside, where senior center Damonte Dodd should get help from graduate transfer L.G. Gill at power forward as well as junior center Michal Cekovsky and redshirt sophomore Ivan Bender, both of whom will likely not play in the opener because of injuries. Cekovsky (sprained toe) and Bender (fractured wrist) could be back in a couple of weeks. — Don Markus Coach Turgeon was trying to recruit. High basketball IQ guys who can do a lot of different things on the court.”
With the addition of graduate transfer L.G. Gill, a 6-8, 230-pound power forward who played three years at Duquesne, the newcomers have added outside shooting and athleticism. They also seem to be more willing passers than many first-year players Turgeon has coached at Maryland.
A case in point is Jackson, who grew up in Canada idolizing Magic Johnson.
“At a young age, I realized how unselfish I was, and I was pretty tall and I could dribble the ball like him,” said Jackson, a 6-7, 225-pound forward with a 7-3 wingspan. He had 15 points, six rebounds and three blocked shots in the exhibition. “The way I see it, if I make my teammate look good, I look good at the same time. I feel like I can do a lot of things on the court, but at the end of the day, the one thing I love is to see my teammates shine.”
The three freshmen have made an immediate impression on their more experienced teammates.
Junior wing Jared Nickens, who’s been pushed in practice by Huerter and Jackson, said he was surprised by how well they meshed from the start and how mature they seem to be, on and off the court.
“It seems like they played in college already,” said Nickens, whostarted ahead of both in the exhibition and led the Terps with 17 points on 7-for-11 shooting. “They’re very poised. They’re going to be great for us; they’re going to contribute in different ways. It’s going to be a fun season.”
Turgeon compares his freshman class, which also includes forwards Micah Thomas and Joshua Tomaic, to the class two years ago that was led by Trimble and included Nickens, Dion Wiley and Michal Cekovsky.
Aside from what Trimble offered as a freshman, the three freshmen in this year’s group will be counted on immediately to do a lot more than those in the 2014 recruiting class.
“Anthony’s something that we haven’t had since I’ve been here,” Turgeon said. “He’s fast, he’s probably going to be the fastest guy in the league; I can’t imagine anyone faster. He can really defend, he can pick up full-court, pressure the ball, fast on the break.
“Kevin Huerter’s one of the best shooters I’ve ever coached. I’ve coached a lot of great shooters. Justin just makes plays. Our guys really like those players. They know we need them to keep the program where we want to keep it. So they’ve accepted them.”
Trimble, who is expected to play against American after spraining an ankle in Saturday’s exhibition victory, said that while the freshmen “picked things up really fast,” they’ve still needed some guidance.
“From the leadership we have from me, Jared, Dion, Damonte [Dodd], the guys who’ve been here, we’ve talked to them a lot, where the spacing is on the court and just how to play college basketball,” Trimble said. “It’s not high school anymore. You come to a team with really good players, you have to fit in. It’s all about winning.”
Huerter is not surprised to see how far the freshmen have come but acknowledged that there is still a transition to play in college.
That doesn’t dilute this group’s potential. And if the promise of the 2016-17 season can be traced back to one day, it’s May 31.
After signing Thomas, a three-star prospect, earlier in the spring, Turgeon and his staff pursued Jackson, a four-star recruit. Jackson originally committed to Nevada-Las Vegas while playing at Findlay Prep in Las Vegas, before the Runnin’ Rebels saw their coach leave for another school. Jackson reopened the search process.
The night Jackson committed to the Terps, Trimble also called Turgeon to say he was going to withdraw from the NBA draft and return to Maryland.
“I got Justin Jackson to commit to me about 8:30 and Melo called me about 9,” Turgeon said. “It was a pretty good half an hour right there. My staff did some amazing things late. It was exhausting, but we did some amazing things to be a pretty good team this year.”
Freshman Kevin Huerter competes in the dunk contest at Maryland Madness on Oct. 14 at Xfinity Center. “Kevin Huerter’s one of the best shooters I’ve ever coached,” coach Mark Turgeon said. Go to baltimoresun.com/terps to see videos of Huerter and Turgeon.