With final exams having begun Wednesday at Maryland, the Terps (9-2) had two days off practice to start their 10-day stretch without games, which won’t end until Seton Hall visits on Dec. 22. After that, they have another full week before Radford plays in College Park to close the nonconference slate. These three weeks will serve as a critical time for improvement.
“We're a work in progress,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “We'll have time. We'll have six days of practice before Seton Hall. Then we're going to have time after Christmas to get ready for the Big Ten. It's a big time for us.”
This young team has primarily relied on six players through the first 11 games of the season, a level of depth that could become unsustainable in Big Ten play.
In three games this season — the matchups against then-No. 4 Virginia and conference opponents Penn State and Purdue — four Terps played at least 30 minutes and two others played at least 20, meaning Maryland’s production is heavily lopsided toward its top six. But after the five usual starters and freshman guard Aaron Wiggins, there’s a drop-off in both playing time and scoring, a gap that has been particularly pronounced against top-tier opponents.
Lately though, the playing time of freshmen Serrel Smith Jr. and Ricky Lindo Jr. has increased. Both played at least 15 minutes in each of the last two games. But those contributions came when Maryland lacked its usual options. Against Loyola Chicago, forwards Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith ran into early foul trouble, so Lindo played a season-high 24 minutes. Sophomore guard Darryl Morsell was limited in that game with an ankle injury and then missed the next one, against Loyola (Md.), leaving more room for a freshman guard like Serrel Smith to have a significant role.
“It was kind of a blessing — Darryl getting hurt and guys getting in foul trouble,” Turgeon said. “Ivan Bender gave us really good minutes, too. So it’s a blessing in disguise. We’ll see. I think each game guys get a little bit more confident.”
As the season has progressed, Smith said he has playing more relaxed and with confidence. He has hit 6 of 10 shots, including two three-pointers, over the last two games, and Turgeon said the freshman’s defense has improved.
“I know in high school I didn't really play a lot of defense,” Smith said, “so when I got on campus, that was my first thing I told myself I was going to lock in on.”
As a whole, the team played back-to-back solid defensive games against Purdue and Loyola Chicago. Wiggins said the team has “matured a lot” in that area.
Lindo, who’s just behind Serrel Smith in minutes per game, played 39 combined minutes in the last two matchups. Against Loyola Chicago, Lindo said the increased minutes showed him that Turgeon trusts him, especially because Maryland didn’t start to run away with a strong lead until late.
In the games against Virginia, Penn State and Purdue, Lindo played a total of eight minutes.
“He made a big shot at Purdue and I really didn’t give him a chance after that to play,” Turgeon said of Lindo’s early three-pointer in the Big Ten road game. “I can see his minutes continuing to go up. We’ll get him more confident and we’re starting to trust him more, so it’s a good feeling because he’s got a huge upside.”
Turgeon has said he hopes Maryland can be a deep team, but at times, the tight rotation has been what gives the Terps the best shot at winning.
While Maryland sits just outside the Associated Press top 25, its Big Ten counterparts have also had success in the early part of the year. Six conference teams are ranked, and four others, including Maryland, received votes in the AP poll. But before games against those teams arrive, Maryland has three weeks to prepare.
During this stretch last season, Turgeon said his group made strides. The issues came when Justin Jackson and Bender suffered injuries soon after.
“If this team can improve as much as that one did and stay healthy,” Turgeon said, “then we’ll be heading in the right direction.”