The story of the Big Ten this season has mainly been about two things: One, the two Michigan schools at the top—the Wolverines, who remain undefeated at 17–0, and Michigan State, which hasn’t lost since Nov. 27—and two, the overall depth of the league, which has completely revamped itself from last season.
That depth has caused a logjam in the middle of the Big Ten, where as many as eight teams beyond those top two are jockeying for position in the conference race while also trying to build an NCAA tournament résumé.
After winning its seventh straight game on Monday with a 75–61 road victory at Ohio State, Maryland is looking like a team starting to separate itself from the pack and threatening to join the Michigan schools in the league’s top tier. Since the calendar has turned to 2019, the Terrapins have beaten Nebraska, Rutgers, Minnesota, Indiana, Wisconsin and now the Buckeyes, with a two-point Dec. 6 road loss at Purdue being their only blemish so far amid a 7–1 Big Ten start.
While a bounce-back year after last season’s 19–13 finish—which saw the Terps miss the postseason entirely—was realistic, if not likely the goal heading into 2018–19, few believed back in November that Maryland would be sitting at 16–3 and 7–1 in the Big Ten by midseason.
A big reason for that hesitance was because the Terrapins brought in a five-man freshman class, helping make them one of the five youngest teams in the country. All five freshmen—Jalen Smith, Eric Ayala, Aaron Wiggins, Serrel Smith Jr. and Ricky Lindo Jr.—are a regular part of Mark Turgeon’s rotation, and Turgeon has even had all five on the floor at the same time on multiple occasions recently. As a team, Maryland starts two freshmen (Ayala and Smith), two sophomores (Bruno Fernando and Darryl Morsell) and a junior (Anthony Cowan), and the team’s lone senior, Ivan Bender, plays less than five minutes per game.
That level of inexperience means inevitable growing pains, and the Terps have had their fair share of them. There was the six-point win over Delaware in their opener after blowing a 22-point lead, the narrow loss to Purdue where the offense went cold in the final minutes of a winnable game, and a home setback against Seton Hall just before Christmas that spoiled their last chance at a notable non-conference win.
There were moments, though, in the early goings that showed the potential of Maryland, like when it turned what was becoming a Virginia blowout into a respectable five-point loss. The Terrapins are still the only team that has scored 70 points on the Cavaliers this season (though Duke may have something to say about that on Saturday), and the effort provided a glimpse of what their offense could become.
Come mid-January that offense has been realized, and it may still be getting better. Maryland has risen to No. 11 on kenpom.com’s offensive efficiency rankings, something that’s especially notable given that a Terrapin team under Turgeon has never finished higher than 24th in that area. The defense, at No. 42, is more of a work in progress, but it’s been getting the job done and has ranked as the third-most efficient in Big Ten play.
The key names behind Maryland’s surge are, of course, Cowan and Fernando. A three-year starter, Cowan is one of the best guards in the Big Ten and has been lighting it up in January, posting four straight games of 20 or more points. His ability to turn on a switch when needed and knack for hitting clutch shots is eerily reminiscent of another local point guard who won Maryland a lot of games not too long ago, Melo Trimble.
Fernando, meanwhile, looks like he made a brilliant decision to put off the NBA and return to school for a second season, as he’s made significant improvements both on offense and defense, and especially in his court vision and passing game. His best effort of the season so far came a week ago in a 25-point, 13-rebound effort against Indiana, and he had 13 points, 15 rebounds and four assists in Friday’s win in Columbus.
The 6’10”, 240-pound Fernando is enough of a handful down low for any team to try and counter, but Maryland can also throw freshman Jalen Smith at opponents, and the two have developed increasing chemistry on the court. Smith, a five-star recruit whose nickname “Stix” attests to his wiry frame, is still plenty raw and prone to disappearing at times—especially when up against stronger big men—but his court IQ and natural athleticism, not to mention his 12.2 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, have been an important part of the Terps’ growth.
More than anything, though, what may be the biggest factor in Maryland putting it together of late is its freshman role players. Ayala has been a revelation from the perimeter, where he’s shooting 48% while averaging 9.4 points per game, and Wiggins is shooting 42% himself from three and provides durable offense off the bench for Turgeon at 8.6 ppg.
The stats of Serrel Smith Jr. and Lindo Jr. won’t pop out at you, but the minutes the two have provided in the last month have brought a level of depth to Maryland that it typically hasn’t had during Turgeon’s eight years in College Park. Smith Jr. can bring offense in a pinch with the ability to knock down jumpers, while Lindo Jr., a late reclassification who didn’t join the team until August, has seen his minutes skyrocket of late due to his ability to do the little things—rebound, defend and limit giveaways.
Cowan and Fernando are Maryland’s undisputed stars, but the development of the supporting cast around them has made the duo even better, and that’s what will be key for the Terrapins if they want to maintain this level of play going forward. Against Ohio State on Friday, six different players hit a three, and five ended up in double figures (a sixth, Ayala, may have gotten there had he not missed the final 13 minutes after a hard fall). It was a perfect illustration of its varied offensive weapons, which open up space for Cowan and Fernando to do their thing.
Next up for Maryland is a trip to East Lansing on Monday, where it will put its seven-game winning streak on the line as it faces one of the Big Ten’s top two for the first time this season. It will be the Terps’ only regular-season shot at Michigan State, though they get two cracks at Michigan later on. Winning in the Breslin Center, where the Spartans have lost just once in the last two seasons, may wind up a bridge too far, but the fact that Maryland can end a difficult seven-game stretch to open January at no worse than 6–1 shows this is a team on the rise.