It took just 12 minutes for Maryland basketball center Jalen Smith to post his 9th-straight double-double. As he had all night, Smith found himself at the rim wide open — but the ball was in the hands of Darryl Morsell. Instead of taking the easy two points, Morsell went for the highlight play, tossing a lob to Smith on the opposite side of the rim. “Stix” slammed the ball with a second remaining in the half. He ended the game with 22 points and a career high 19 boards. His dominance kept him in the game for 37 minutes — a team high. Smith is just one of a six-man rotation that Turgeon has relied on all season.
“We’re just clicking on all cylinders right now and everybody has got so much tremendous confidence,” said Smith. “Everybody’s just playing their role and we’re just winning games.”
Northwestern hung around for the entirety of Tuesday’s contest at Xfinity, but ultimately fell short. Meanwhile, the Terps claimed their ninth straight win to remain undefeated at home on a 76-67 score line over the Wildcats.
“We could’ve really tightened up, but we didn’t,” Head Coach Mark Turgeon said. “We played with great poise.”
Regardless of the opponent, every game is an opportunity to improve and prepare for the journey ahead. Tuesday’s bout against Northwestern was a potential opportunity for Turgeon to try new rotations and give role players minutes. Maryland has been able to produce on the offensive and defensive end consistently with its solid six-man rotation of Smith, Anthony Cowan, Eric Ayala, Donta Scott, Aaron Wiggins and Morsell. Out of the six, each has a designated role. When it works, Maryland looks like one of the best teams in the nation.
However, in the event of a player having a poor shooting night, falling into foul trouble, or sustaining an injury, there are almost no alternatives. In their second meeting with Northwestern, their lack of depth was tested early.
“I lose sleep over that but I’m going to figure it out,” said Turgeon. “I got to figure out the other 20 minutes, and they got to be quality, good minutes.”
Just prior to the u-16 media timeout in the first half, Scott picked up his second foul and a spot on the bench for the majority of the period. In the time Scott was on the bench, Turgeon tried his hand at lineups that included Ricky Lindo Jr. and Chol Marial. The two played a combined four minutes, and looked out of rhythm on the court.
With Scott on the bench, the Wildcats broke out on a 16-8 run that cut their 11-point deficit to just three. Fortunately, the Terps converted threes in three consecutive possessions to escape with a 12-point lead at half.
In the second half, Turgeon quickly gave up on his mid game experiment and turned to what has been reliable all season. This time, poor shooting kept the Wildcats close. Maryland went just 1-13 from long range in the final period, also shooting a subpar 41% from the field.
“We couldn’t make a jumper in the second half,” said Turgeon. “It’s kind of who we turn into sometimes.”
While the Wildcats did trade buckets with the Terps, and responded well to the Terps defensive rotations, they failed to capture a lead.
“[Northwestern is] going to battle,” said Turgeon. “They’ve been a better road team at times than they’ve been at home.”
The close nature of Tuesday’s contest was almost entirely avoidable. Maryland barely escaped due to their overbearing talent. The consistency of Smith and Cowan can take the Terps far, but depth could take some weight off their shoulders. While Morsell, Ayala, Wiggins and Scott have well-defined roles, the Terps could clearly do with some extra depth.
Yet the seventh and eighth man on this Terp team have yet to be found due to the overreliance on the six before them. For Turgeon, finding the last two pieces requires a hefty amount of trust. Thus far, Maryland has been reluctant to bank on unproven players — perhaps counterintuitive to the fact that they can only develop with time on the court. On a squad featuring eight benchwarmers, there’s plenty of room to improve moving forward.
“I keep thinking our best basketball is ahead of us,” said Turgeon. “It is for them.”