Basketball Around the Beltway: Maryland basketball season preview

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — The Melo Trimble Show is now only available on reruns in College Park.

The point guard who helped lead the Terps to a 75-25 mark and three straight trips to the NCAA Tournament departed for the pros last spring. But the cupboard is far from bare for head coach Mark Turgeon.

“I’ve heard people say we have a young team. I feel like we’re much more experienced than we were last year. We’ve got eight of our top 10 guys back — you know, the three freshmen become sophomores,” he said.

Those three sophomores — Justin Jackson, Kevin Huerter and Anthony Cowan — made a combined 96 starts last year. Jackson led the team in rebounding, Huerter made the most three-pointers on the roster, and Cowan actually had more assists and steals than Trimble. The future isn’t just now for this team — it was here last winter, as well.

“We relied on them a lot last year quite a bit, too, Coach Turgeon added. “I think [this year] they’re much more prepared. I do think every one of them has gotten a lot better.”

Justin Jackson almost wasn’t a part of the picture this season, as the forward from Ontario tested the NBA Draft waters last spring before deciding to return. But even though he decided to return to school, Jackson didn’t leave the draft workouts empty-handed.

“Going up against a lot of top guys, just proving to myself I can play on that level, it really helped the college game slow down for me; and I’m starting to make the right plays and make the right reads,” said Jackson.

At 6 feet 7 inches, he will play both forward positions this year for coach Turgeon.

“He’s one of those guys now who is much more competitive and plays harder every day — [he] has added to his game,” said Turgeon.

Jackson actually led the team in three-point shooting (44 percent) as a freshman and is focused on becoming more of a perimeter threat this season.

“I’ve been working on my ball-handling and making decisions,” Jackson said. “You got to know what you bring to the table and how you can help your team.”

If Jackson is able to shine at the small forward position, fellow sophomore Kevin Huerter can slide over to the shooting guard spot and provide major mismatches with his 6-foot-7 frame. Huerter has tried to change his offensive approach after averaging 9.3 points per game as a freshman.

“Coach Turgeon said he wanted me to get to the free throw line a little more, and that comes from not just shooting jump shots,” Huerter said. “I’m trying to get into the paint, come to two-foot stops and make plays off that.”

The Clifton, New York, product returns on a mission after the team melted in March.

“We didn’t finish the way we wanted to last year — we lost first round Big Ten, first round NCAAs…I don’t think we stayed together as a team as well as we could have, and we definitely have to change that going into this year.”

Huerter may have played the most minutes of the trio, and Jackson may have produced the most points and rebounds; but the catalyst on both ends of the floor will be Anthony Cowan. Offensive possessions will more often than not begin with the ball in his hands.

“My message to Anthony is, make the right decisions,” Coach Turgeon said. “Read the situation — we have a read and react offense. It’s about making the right decisions. If Anthony does that, we’re a much better offensive team.”

Cowan’s freshman year was a roller-coaster ride that saw the high of 18 points against Richmond on a Friday night followed up by an 0-for-3 shooting performance against Kansas State the next evening. Cowan said, “I just want to be a more consistent shooter. The only way you can work on that, I know, is keep getting reps.”

Cowan scored 17 points on 6-of-9 shooting in the team’s exhibition victory over Randolph-Macon.

There’s a foreign flavor in the frontcourt: Slovakian center Michal Cekovsky is back after a fractured ankle ended his junior season. Junior Ivan Bender (Bosnia and Herzegovina) shot 75 percent from the field over his final six games last winter. Graduate transfer Sean Obi (Nigeria) is healthy for the first time in two years. Redshirt freshman Joshua Tomaic (Canary Islands) is better prepared after sitting out last season. And Angolan Bruno Fernando should see major minutes as a freshman.

“I guess he’s a 6-10 Dez Wells,” Turgeon said of Fernando. “Plays to exhaustion — the kid’s amazing. Shot blocker, great rebounder. Very vocal … and we really haven’t had one like him. Athletic … skilled.”

A high-ankle sprain kept Fernando out of the exhibition against Randolph-Macon, but he expects to play opening night at Stony Brook.

The other freshman of note comes to College Park from a much shorter distance than Angola: Baltimore native Darryl Morsell brings a 6-foot-4 frame and projects to play both backcourt positions.

“Coach Turgeon told me when he was recruiting me that I’d be playing a little bit of point guard — I knew it would be a big adjustment when I got here but he told me he’ll help me. It’s been going well.”

When it comes to playing in the Big Ten, size is — for lack of a better word — huge.

“Darryl gives us a defender on the perimeter that we really needed. He’s a guy that loves to compete,” Turgeon said.

Other guards expected to contribute are senior Jared Nickens and junior Dion Wiley.

Maryland had best be ready — the Big Ten is back. After being much-maligned in the regular season (just one team finished in the Top 20) and sneakily successful in the NCAA Tournament (three schools in the Sweet 16), the league puts four teams in the preseason Top 25, with Michigan State swimming among the favorites to win it all at No. 2 in both polls. Maryland is one of three schools in the league also receiving votes, and will play seven games against the four ranked schools during the conference season, starting with No. 20 Purdue December 1. It was a loss to the Boilermakers at home last February that began a 4-7 tailspin to end the season after the Terps carved out a school-best 20-2 start.

Will the roster be ready for the conference clashes this winter?

“We’ve added three physical guys. We’re a little bit more physical last year, which is good,” Coach Turgeon said. “I think our system will look a lot the same. We’re doing some different things in our small four-guard lineup that’s going to be really good for us.”

Early-season tests include a Nov. 15 game against Butler (the Bulldogs also received votes in both preseason polls) and a trip to Syracuse in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge Nov. 27 (I’m going to take a flyer and say it might be cold that day up there). The regular season tips off Friday, Nov. 10 at Stony Brook and the Terps host Maryland-Eastern Shore Nov. 12 in their home opener.

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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