The Washington Post
Terps look to rebound from woes on boards
Eric Ayala believes in the potential of this Maryland men’s basketball team. Even after two losses early in the season, the senior guard sees the talent around him. He has been in College Park longer than all of his teammates and has internalized the standard that this program should meet. So after the Terrapins’ recent win against Richmond, when they had to claw back from a late deficit, Ayala had a reminder for his teammates: “For the rest of our year, we win here. This is what Maryland does. We win. We always expect to win, too.”
Only three players on this Maryland roster — Ayala, Donta Scott and Hakim Hart — were part of the team that won a Big Ten title two years ago. Since then, key players have moved on and others have filled those spots. There are five newcomers in the eight-man rotation that Coach Mark Turgeon relied on during the tournament in the Bahamas, where the Terps beat Richmond but lost to Louisville.
“We’re still getting familiar with each other,” Ayala said.
And this team isn’t where it needs to be yet — not if the Terps (5-2) want to enter the postseason with a chance to make a run. But heading into Wednesday night’s game against Virginia Tech in the ACC/BIG Ten Challenge, Turgeon feels better about his group than
he did before the Thanksgiving trip.
There are still offensive issues to work through, and the most alarming problem in the Bahamas was the 51-25 rebounding deficit against the Cardinals that prompted Turgeon to say, “I don’t know if I’ve ever had a team get beat that bad on the boards.”
Louisville shot 21 for 60 from the field, and on the 39 misses, the Cardinals grabbed 17 offensive rebounds on their way to 16 secondchance points. Louisville had another 34 rebounds on the defensive end, leaving the Terps with just two offensive rebounds and three second-chance points. Louisville starting forward Malik Williams said the Cardinals wanted to be the “Baha bullies,” and they asserted that dominance, leaving the Terps searching for slivers of optimism amid the disappointment.
“I can’t fault the effort,” Turgeon said.
And point guard Fatts Russell reasoned that the tight game against Louisville, despite the rebounding woes, “says a lot about how tough we are on the defensive end.”
But Maryland must keep this lopsided result on the glass from reappearing during conference play, when bigger teams and dominant centers will be poised to pounce on those opportunities. Before the Louisville letdown, Maryland averaged 41.5 rebounds and the Terps were edging their opponents by about nine boards per game. But the Cardinals and their size, rather than the smaller but athletic mid-major opponents, more closely resemble the teams remaining on the schedule.
In the past few seasons, Turgeon’s teams at Maryland have rarely faced such deep deficits on the boards. The Terps leaned on Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith before last year’s team struggled in this area. Maryland tried to adjust to the deficiency, with Scott, a 6-foot-8 forward, and the team’s best guards hustling to grab rebounds despite size disadvantages.
The better solution was the one that arrived this offseason: 6-11 Georgetown center Qudus Wahab transferred to Maryland, and 6-9 four-star recruit Julian Reese joined the program. But with those newcomers acclimating to the program, Turgeon said early this season that his players should excel on the boards, but they’re not there yet.
“We’ve got to get more offensive rebounds, and we’ve got to be a heck of a lot tougher on the glass,” Turgeon said Tuesday. “It’s got to become a habit, or we’re just going to end up being a mediocre team until we figure that out.”
The Terps have upcoming opportunities that could allow them to prove that the Louisville mark was an anomaly, rather than the start of a worrisome trend. Maryland’s next three opponents before a 15-day layoff — Virginia Tech, Northwestern in the conference opener (Sunday) and Florida at Barclays Center in New York (Dec. 12) — are teams with size that can challenge the Terps in the paint.
This offseason, Turgeon bolstered his roster with Wahab and Russell, filling two key voids, and added Reese, Utah transfer Ian Martinez and Old Dominion transfer Xavier Green, who have contributed off the bench. Players have touted their chemistry, despite the little time together. A 5-2 start isn’t what the Terps wanted, but it’s not detrimental, either — as long as the team can improve in an effort to keep pace with a schedule that will become more difficult over the next month.
“I think we all know what our best lineup is,” Turgeon said. “We’ve just got to get that best lineup and all those guys playing well.”
Through seven games, Turgeon’s five starters — Russell, Ayala, Hart, Scott and Wahab — have played together about five times more than any other lineup combination, but some of those top players still lack offensive consistency.
This is a team that hasn’t quite figured out its ideal formula, which isn’t surprising with five newcomers playing at least 15 minutes per game. But as the Terps approach their eighth game and a more difficult December slate arrives, there’s less wiggle room to sort out these issues. One glaring deficiency, such as the rebounding problem against Louisville, can doom the team’s chances against these tougher opponents. So now the Terps must figure out how to play at their best, and they need to do so quickly.
“Every opportunity is a big step,” Scott said. “Every game, everything we do, even practice, is another big step that we’ve got to take and be locked in to just further our path to the future, where we want to be in March.”