Against Northwestern Feb. 10, Maryland men's basketball head coach Mark Turgeon started four guards -- sophomores Anthony Cowan Jr. and Kevin Huerter along with redshirt junior Dion Wiley and freshman Darryl Morsell -- for the fifth straight game, and his team turned in its best offensive performance of the five-game run.
The stretch began against Michigan State Jan. 28. Even though he had four big men -- seniors Michal Cekovsky and Sean Obi, along with redshirt freshman Joshua Tomaic and freshman Bruno Fernando -- available to play, Turgeon opted to counter the big-bodied Spartans with small ball.
But soon, Turgeon didn't have a choice but to play four guards. Cekovsky got hurt in practice Jan. 30, the day before the Terps took on Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind. With just three big men available, Turgeon started Cowan, Huerter, Wiley and Morsell at Purdue Jan. 31, against Wisconsin Feb. 4 and at Penn State Feb. 7.
Cekovsky returned to action against Northwestern, but Turgeon opted to stay with a four-guard lineup. The Terps scored 1.2 points per possession against the Wildcats, their best mark since going to a four-guard starting lineup. Turgeon played three big men against Northwestern: Fernando (25 minutes), Cekovsky (15 minutes) and Tomaic (three).
"With what we've got right now, we really have to go four guards, to be honest," Cowan said after Maryland's 73-57 victory against the Wildcats. "We've only really got two bigs. It wouldn't really be smart to have them both out at the same time. But no, that just gives us more driving lanes, more drive-and-kicks for open threes. I like the four-guard lineup."
Cowan, Huerter, Wiley and Morsell combined for 62 points, 26 rebounds and 16 assists against Northwestern. It was the first time during the five-game stretch that each guard contributed in all facets. Wiley hit two 3-pointers in games against Penn State and Michigan State but didn't do much else otherwise during those games; he also twisted an ankle at Purdue. Morsell didn't find a rhythm against Wisconsin and didn't shoot well against Michigan State.
However, Wiley had five rebounds and four assists against the Wildcats. He also had two makes from inside the 3-point line, one of which was a
drive to the hoop where he deftly absorbed contact
, a sign of growth since he's only made 16 2-pointers the entire season. Morsell had a team-high nine rebounds and scored around the rim. And as usual, Cowan and Huerter played well. The pair combined for 38 points, six 3-pointers, 11 rebounds and nine assists.
"I think it helps us more because there's more shooters on the floor," said Wiley, who hit two 3-pointers. "Even with Darryl out there, it's just more spacing. It's not clogging the lane. We're not clogging the lane. It's more penetration and penetrate, kick for the shooters."
Playing at least three quality shooters at the same time -- whether it's Cowan, Huerter and Wiley, or senior wing Jared Nickens instead of Wiley -- gives the Terps the type of lineup they were hoping for at the beginning of the year when they played sophomore Justin Jackson with Cowan and Huerter. Maryland saw the benefits of playing at least three shooters at all times against Northwestern. The ball moved to the open man, guards had room to get to the rim and Morsell wasn't asked to shoot threes.
"We put in our passing game offense probably halfway through the year," Huerter said. "Finally, Coach Turgeon just said, 'You guys have got to go out there and play. We're going to set screens for each other. It's going to be hard to scout.' Because teams really can't scout just movement, just being a basketball player. I think game-by-game, practice-by-practice, the more you get comfortable just learning how to cut with each other, learning how to screen. So offense hasn't been a problem for us the past couple games. It's been the defensive end."
Maryland's offense has been solid all year. The Terps are 32nd in the country in offensive efficiency, according to
, a college basketball analytics site. And their offense has gotten better during the last five games with a four-guard starting lineup. They began the stretch by scoring 1.08 and 1.02 points per possession against Michigan State and Purdue, and then improved to 1.17 and 1.13 points per possession against Wisconsin and Penn State before scoring 1.2 points per possession Feb. 10.
But for Turgeon to trust a four-guard lineup, it has to hold its own on the defensive end and on the boards. The Terps had one of their best defensive performances of the year Feb. 10, holding Northwestern to 57 points and 33.3 percent shooting. It was an uplifting performance for a team that looked like a
good defensive squad in December
, but has since struggled on that end as
injuries have forced players to step into new roles
But Maryland's been a good rebounding team all year -- it's third in the conference in rebounding margin -- and the Terps battled Northwestern to a draw on the boards Feb. 10. Morsell had four offensive boards,
which led to points via putbacks
"We're playing four guards, so our guards have to rebound for us and they did it," Turgeon said. "We weren't very good the first half; they had six offensive rebounds. I thought that was the reason the game was somewhat close, because of their rebounding. But second half, we were much better. We've been surprisingly a better rebounding team for as small of a team that we're putting out there. In league play, we're doing pretty well. Last year, we didn't rebound great with a small lineup. This year, we've been able to do it. We work on it, we talk about it every day, show them film."