With no true point guard and only seven scholarship players in the rotation, Maryland has done well to eke out a 6-3 record, leaning on hard-nosed defense to compensate for its ball-handling woes.
That challenge should ease a bit: Sophomore Pe’Shon Howard, penciled in as the starting point guard before breaking his left foot in late October, is set to make his season debut on Friday against Radford (3-10).
Howard won’t start the game at Comcast Center, Coach Mark Turgeon said Thursday. But he has fully participated in practice since he rejoined the team on Saturday and he will definitely play on Friday.
Turgeon called it “a magical day.”
“He looks great,” Turgeon said. “He has no pain in his foot. He played every drill, every practice. He’s still a little bit out of shape, but he’s doing amazingly well.”
Turgeon said he has no goal in mind for the number of minutes Howard will play. Howard’s fitness (or lack of it) will likely dictate that, he added.
Regardless, Howard’s return marks a major step forward for Maryland. The Terrapins have shown steady improvement — they have won four of their last five — but have yet to beat an opponent by double digits.
It’s not simply that the 6-3, 195-pound Howard is a strong and seasoned point guard with natural leadership skills and who is entirely comfortable barking orders on court.
Howard should also help the Terps simply by being another body — and an experienced one, at that.
With Howard in the lineup, freshman Nick Faust, a natural shooting guard who can also flex his rebounding skill at small forward, can be relieved of the unfamiliar role at the point.
Same for Terrell Stoglin, the ACC’s most prolific scorer (22.2 points per game), who has helped shoulder ball-handling duties in Howard’s absence.
The results weren’t pretty. Maryland ranks at the bottom of the ACC and near the bottom of all Division I schools in assists per game, with 9.2. (North Carolina, by contrast, averages 19.2 assists per game). And Maryland ranks 11th in the 12-team ACC in assists-to-turnover ratio, at 0.7.
“It’s a burden off my shoulders,” Faust said of Howard’s return. “I’m just focused on the [shooting guard and small forward]. I’m back to the old me.”
Other benefits of Howard’s return have shown themselves in practice this week.
According to Turgeon, the Terps are defending better with Howard in the lineup — partly because of the intensity he brings and partly because Turgeon has emphasized the fundamentals of defense like an obsessive since Maryland’s 65-61 victory over Florida International on Dec. 14.
Maryland also is running more, able to press and play the up-tempo offense that Turgeon favors.
Said redshirt freshman Ashton Pankey: Howard “gives us more defensive pressure on the ball, which helps us as a team. For guys like Nick, it makes it easier to get back to his regular position.”
Radford shouldn’t pose a major challenge, arriving on a nine-game losing streak. But in a sense, the Terps are starting over Friday, when Howard’s return will start the process of reshuffling the rotation and expanding Turgeon’s tactical options. On Dec. 28, the remaking of the Terps continues with the debut of 7-1 center Alex Len.