You noticed it at Michigan State, when the Spartans ran down the floor and Maryland’s attempts to stop them in transition proved futile. You could see it when Ivan Bender proposed at center court on senior night and a horde of teammates jumped in on Bender’s first few moments with his fiancee and slapped his back. You can spot the silly mistakes but also the flashes of potential.
You hear the descriptor so often — from Coach Mark Turgeon, from analysts, from fans — that it seems permanently attached: They’re not the Maryland Terrapins but the young Maryland Terrapins.
Here’s the anatomy of Maryland’s rotation: five freshmen, two sophomores and one junior. Their average age when the season began: 19. None of those players have been part of a postseason win. Anthony Cowan Jr., the lone upperclassman in the bunch, is the only one who has been to the NCAA tournament.
After last year’s early exit in the conference tournament and no NCAA tournament berth, the Terrapins stepped into a period of some uncertainty. Sure, Bruno Fernando opted to return for his sophomore season, and along with Cowan and sophomore guard Darryl Morsell, he would anchor the squad in 2018-19. But the team’s success also would depend on a contingent of freshmen who came aboard in the summer — six newcomers in all, five regular contributors and two starters.
So now, with 31 games and 22 wins behind them, the players who will help determine this team’s postseason fate, beginning Thursday at the Big Ten tournament in Chicago, are the ones who have never been there. But maybe that’s not so bad.
“We're so young, sometimes our guys are naive, which is good,” Turgeon said. “They'll go in and just play.”
To be clear, young doesn’t mean unaccomplished. There’s a reason the freshmen play ahead of some older teammates.
Jalen Smith, the 18-year-old with goggles, came in as a five-star recruit with expectations that perhaps magnified his inconsistency. But he also showed he can dominate, especially when he is confident and aggressive like he was last week against Minnesota. Eric Ayala has made 42.5 percent of his three-pointers, and Aaron Wiggins has hit plenty of shots from deep, even in difficult environments.
Combined, the five freshmen in the rotation account for 51.7 percent of the team’s minutes and 46.5 percent of its points.
As Matt Painter described it, after his Purdue team lost in College Park, “They have a bunch of 19-year-olds running around out there making shots and making plays.”
Smith is 18, while Wiggins and Ayala are 20, but his point stands. What particularly impressed Painter was how the freshmen defended. Maryland held Purdue to 18 points in the second half of a 70-56 victory Feb. 12. Most young players, Painter said, come to school thinking they know how to guard, but they don’t.
According to KenPom.com’s experience metric, Maryland has the fourth-youngest team of 353 in Division I. But even in East Lansing, Mich., on Jan. 21, when the Spartans forced Maryland to look young for what Turgeon thought was the first time all season, Morsell didn’t want to attribute his team’s disappointing showing to its youth.
“I don't like to make excuses for our team being young because our young guys can play,” Morsell said. “They're elite freshmen.”
Ayala spent a postgraduate year at IMG Academy in Florida, and Wiggins had an extra year in high school. The two share a birthday in January and turned 20 during the season. Wiggins jokes with Jalen Smith, Serrel Smith Jr. and Ricky Lindo Jr., the three freshmen who are still 18. (“All my sons,” Wiggins said.) Ayala messes with Morsell when the upperclassmen get to eat first because he is a month older than his sophomore teammate.
Ayala has become known as the old soul of the class. He is poised, confident and unfazed by the spotlight. Wiggins described him as mellow and independent, someone who will say, “I’ll catch y’all later,” then go on his way.
But “everybody only thinks he's mature because he's got a beard,” said Jalen Smith, who lives with Ayala, Wiggins and Serrel Smith.
Lindo receives all the attention for being the young one. He turned 18 in September and didn’t join the team until August, missing out on the team’s exhibition trip to Italy. Lindo still doesn’t have his driver’s license, but he insists he knows how to drive and just hasn’t gone through the process yet.
Serrel Smith, when asked to describe Lindo, started rattling off his teammate’s traits: “Real quiet, extremely goofy, watches ‘The Office’ 24-7 … very young.”
Wiggins interrupted: “They’re the same age!”
Serrel Smith, who is less than two months older, continued describing Lindo: “Eats a lot. And he’s in love with bread and butter. He goes to the restaurant and gets like seven pieces of bread.”
Lindo said he particularly enjoys playing with the spherical-shaped butter the team has during pregame meals.
So though at times you can’t tell on the court, it’s not hard to find proof: Some of these players are still 18.
Before arriving in College Park, a few of the freshmen had ties to each other or to the older players on the team. Jalen Smith sat in the back of the room at Mount Saint Joseph in Baltimore when Morsell, his high school teammate, announced he would attend Maryland. Wiggins’s and Ayala’s AAU teams faced each other last summer in the Under Armour national championship. (Just don’t ask Wiggins about that. His team lost, and he still won’t talk about it.)
Wiggins was the first member of the six-man freshman class to commit. Then came Jalen Smith and Ayala. By then, Wiggins started to think, “We look pretty nice.” Maryland later added Serrel Smith, Trace Ramsey and finally Lindo, forming the top recruiting class in the Big Ten.
Serrel Smith, who is from St. Petersburg, Fla., didn’t know any of his classmates before committing. But soon after, he roomed with Wiggins at the Capital Classic, a high school All-Star Game in the District.
Wiggins remembers walking into the room and saying, “What’s good, bro?” only to be met with silence from Serrel Smith, who was on the phone. Smith said he answered before returning to the call, but the other freshmen stand with Wiggins. It was unclear how much Jalen Smith was exaggerating when he said Serrel Smith started to talk maybe after his 10th practice at Maryland.
“It took him a minute to come out of his shell,” Wiggins said.
Serrel Smith argued Lindo is the quietest, but his teammates said Lindo, the late arrival on campus, became comfortable quickly, while Smith took longer. With the others in agreement, Smith stopped resisting.
"Sorry, brother,” Wiggins said, before correcting himself. “Little bro."
The freshmen form a tightknit group. Four live together. Some go out to eat together, which Serrel Smith agrees to only if players recently received their stipends. And if they walk home from Xfinity Center with each other, they’re delayed together by the remarkably small strides of Jalen Smith — yes, the 6-foot-10 forward, who is even slower if he is on his phone.
When asked why the freshmen have played with maturity this season, Ayala pointed back to this closeness. He described a “pure, genuine love” among the newcomers and with the older players, too. That helps them hold each other accountable.
“I think we’ve all grown together,” Lindo said, mentioning how sometimes, even during Big Ten play, five freshmen share the court.
On Saturday, the day of the conference tournament semifinals, a day on which Maryland hopes to still be playing, Jalen Smith will turn 19. That will bump up the average age in the rotation to 19.5 — not that it really matters, which Maryland proved by finishing its conference slate in fifth place.
But to make a run in the postseason, the young Terrapins will need to play as if they have been here even though they haven’t. It helps that at this point of a season in which they have become core pieces of the team, they have stopped feeling like newcomers.
“We don’t even acknowledge each other as freshmen anymore,” Ayala said. “The older guys don’t acknowledge us as freshmen. They joke around here and there, but when we get on the court, we’re looked at as to go out and do our job.”