When the Maryland men's basketball season began a few months ago, casual Terps fans didn't know much about Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson, two freshmen who would be tasked with helping Maryland overcome losing four starters from last year's team. At the team's media day in College Park, Md., Oct. 25, head coach Mark Turgeon dropped hints about Huerter and Jackson.
Huerter, as Turgeon said then, is "one of the best shooters with deep range that I've ever coached." Turgeon also revealed he planned on playing Jackson at power forward. Turgeon said Jackson "can cover his tail defensively because he's so long as a four, but he's really more of a guard than anybody I've had at that position."
Turgeon's optimism about Huerter and Jackson has been well founded. The pair helped vault Maryland to the best start in program history (20-2) and are key cogs in one of the best starting units in the Big Ten. Jackson is averaging 11.4 points and 6.3 rebounds per game, while Huerter is posting 8.9 points, 5.0 boards and 2.4 assists per contest, as of Feb. 10.
"In all the films, I think [Huerter's] like the X-factor for them. First of all, he's an outstanding passer. He's got great size. He can make threes," Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell said after the Terps took down the Scarlet Knights Jan. 24. "Jackson's talented. Their freshmen class is really good, and what I'm most impressed with is they play every night. It's a real consistent class. You don't get that a lot of times out of freshmen -- real consistent in their production."
Huerter, a 6-foot-7 small forward out of Clifton Park, N.Y., announced his presence with authority early in the season. In the final moments of Maryland's second game of the year, at Georgetown Nov. 15, Huerter blocked away what may have been a game-winning, last-second layup by Hoyas guard Jagan Mosely.
Huerter eventually broke out on the offensive end against Nebraska Jan. 1, scoring a season-high 26 points on 7-of-11 shooting from 3-point range. A 38.6 percent shooter from beyond the arc, Huerter's shooting is what stands out about his offensive game at this stage. He made two significant 3-pointers late in Maryland's victory against Indiana Jan. 10 and was 5-of-7 from deep in the Terps' win at Minnesota Jan. 28. He's very effective in using screens away from the ball to make himself available to passers.
"Kevin's been very consistent for us, shooting the ball well," Turgeon said Feb. 3. "We're putting the ball in his hands more, which we need to do. He's great in ball screens. He's a great passer. [As] the season goes on, you figure your team out a little bit more, and you try to put them in positions to be successful, and Kevin's been making all the right decisions."
But it's Huerter's passing ability that's added an extra dimension to Maryland's offense. Huerter, who's second on the team in assists, recorded a season-high six assists during the Terps' win against Rutgers, including two terrific cross-court passes for corner threes by junior guard Melo Trimble and forward L.G. Gill. He's tall enough to see over defenders, and having been a point guard in high school, retains a point guard's mentality, as Turgeon has pointed out throughout the season.
"With our offense, I think playmakers can thrive," Huerter said after the win against Rutgers. "That's what [the coaching staff] said when they recruited me -- that we play an up-tempo, NBA-style offense, and we want guys to pass, shoot and dribble. ... Justin can do it, too. I think different guys have shown how their playmaking [and] their decision-making can thrive."
That goes for Jackson, as well. He started off the season hot from 3-point range, going 3-for-5 in Maryland's win against Georgetown and 5-for-7 from distance in its close win against Towson Nov. 20. The East York, Ontario, native cooled off after that, but it was a preview for what was to come later in the season, when he went 5-of-5 from 3-point range during a win at Minnesota and 4-of-7 from deep at Ohio State Jan. 31.
At one point, Jackson made eight straight 3-pointers between the two road victories. Turgeon pointed out Feb. 3 that Jackson's hot shooting "really helped us spread the floor a little bit and it opens up the drive game for him, which he's so good at," which gives the Terps unique ability at the four spot.
"Honestly, as I've gotten here, I've kind of learned to just stay consistent," Jackson said of his shooting Feb. 3. "Even if things aren't working, if things aren't going great, you've just got to stay consistent. You've just got to keep working, and the results will show."
Jackson has also distinguished himself on the boards as the team's leading rebounder. He's had double-digit rebounding efforts three times and has pulled down nine boards three times, as of Feb. 10. "Everyone wants the ball. It's always a fight down there, so I just try my hardest to do whatever I can do to help my team win," Jackson said. "Extra possessions always help."
Perhaps the biggest surprise to outside observers with respect to Huerter and Jackson is what a help they've been defensively for a team that ranks 38th in the country in defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com, a college basketball analytics site. However, it hasn't been a surprise to guard Anthony Cowan, a fellow productive freshman for the Terps.
"[With] Coach Turgeon, really, if you're not going to defend, you're not going to play," Cowan said. "He made that completely clear at the beginning of the year."
Huerter often handles the opponent's best perimeter scorer, like when he helped hold Iowa senior guard Peter Jok, the Big Ten's top scorer, to 14 points on 4-of-12 shooting Jan. 19. Meanwhile, Jackson's toughness and length -- he has a 7-foot-3 wingspan -- helps him hold up defensively against bigger power forwards. And both help protect the rim; they're the top shot blockers on the team behind senior forward Damonte Dodd and junior center Michal Cekovsky.
Not only that, but the two have combined to foul out just one time: Jackson, in a loss to Purdue Feb. 4.
"Our assistant coaches always tell us, they want us to have pride in our defense," Huerter said. "Coach [Dustin] Clark, especially when I get those matchups, says, ‘Take pride in the defensive end. Take pride in trying to stop the other team's best scorer.' And so I think it's just a mindset. When you take on the challenge, whoever it may be ... I want to stop them and not let them completely control the game."
Issue 230: February 2017