The Maryland men's basketball team improved to 6-0 with a 104-67 victory against Marshall Nov. 23. The Terps face Virginia in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge Nov. 28, a stiff early-season test against a team ranked No. 4 in the nation. Here are five early takeaways on the Terps heading into their game against the Cavaliers:
1. The rotation looks fairly defined.
Through five games, head coach Mark Turgeon has mostly played eight players: guards Anthony Cowan, Darryl Morsell, Eric Ayala, Aaron Wiggins and Serrel Smith Jr., forwards Jalen Smith and Ricky Lindo Jr. and center Bruno Fernando.
The six players who have seen the most time are Cowan, Ayala, Wiggins, Morsell, Fernando and Jalen Smith. Five of those six typically make up Turgeon's starting lineup, with Serrel Smith and Lindo coming off the bench. Ayala, Wiggins, Lindo, Jalen Smith and Serrel Smith are all freshmen.
"We can look like a really good team one minute," Turgeon said after the Marshall game, "and we can look like five freshmen are in our top eight the next minute."
Turgeon's three other scholarship players -- forwards Ivan Bender, Joshua Tomaic and Trace Ramsey -- have all played sparingly. Bender and Tomaic could take on bigger roles as the season wears on, especially when the Terps find themselves in foul trouble against deep frontcourts against better competition, starting with Virginia Nov. 28, Penn State Dec. 1 and Purdue Dec. 6.
"We're getting better. That's really what matters," Turgeon said. "I don't know how good we are. We're going to find out next week, and the next two weeks we'll find out how good we really are."
2. Anthony Cowan and Bruno Fernando entered the season as the team's top returners, and they've shouldered that responsibility well.
Cowan, a third-team All-Big Ten pick a year ago, returned to College Park, Md., with a different role than he had last season when he was the only true point guard on the roster. With the addition of Ayala, Cowan has played off the ball some, and a responsibility to score from the wing has come with that change.
Maryland faced a lot of zone defense during the season's first five games, and Cowan struggled some with his shot. But against Marshall's man-to-man defense, Cowan had his best game of the year, going 10-of-15 from the field and slicing through the Thundering Herd defense with ease. Cowan's 26-point effort represented the level of assertiveness Maryland will need from its leader moving forward.
"I'm not saying zone is a killer, but it definitely is a little different, especially how I like to play," Cowan said, adding, "I think we play a lot better when we play fast. This really our first [game] playing against a team that plays man, so I think we did a really good job of executing."
Fernando flirted with the NBA Draft this spring before returning to school. The 6-foot-10, 240-pound Fernando, equipped with the body and athleticism of an NBA big man, needed to develop his feel for the game and figure out how to stay on the court more. He's done that, and now he's averaging 16.2 points on 77.4 percent shooting and grabbing 9.3 rebounds a game.
"I'm a lot [more] comfortable and my confidence is on another level right now," Fernando said. "Not just because of the way we're playing, but it kind of goes back to the hard work I put in in the offseason, just thinking about going back and thinking about how much I put into it and the hours that I put into the gym and everything."
3. Eric Ayala might have been the most college-ready of all the freshmen.
Ayala wasn't the most highly regarded of the Terps' five freshmen, but he might have been the most ready to contribute. He's shown off a diverse offensive game with an ability to shoot (9-for-20 from 3-point range), drive to the basket and pass (3.7 assists per game).
He's also been able to run the half-court offense as a point guard. Listed as a combo guard by recruiting sites, Ayala was a true point guard on IMG Academy's post-graduate team last year, a skill set that's carried over to Maryland and allowed Cowan to play on the wing some.
Ayala's shot is the biggest surprise so far, though. Not known as a shooter at the high school or AAU levels, Ayala went 5-for-6 from 3-point range against Marshall. Ayala credited assistant coach Matt Brady for helping him develop his shot. Brady coached Ayala's AAU coach, Terrell Myers, at St. Joseph's in the 1990s, which adds to Ayala's comfort level.
"Coach Brady, he's a genius. He's a genius," Ayala said. "He's always in my ear every practice, every shootaround, every time we're working out. Me and him get in the gym, [9 p.m.], stuff like that, just shooting. In the game, I can hear his voice. … I thank Coach Brady a lot. He's been helping me a lot with my shot."
4. Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith look like a tough fit together on the floor, but that could change as the season wears on.
Fernando and Smith started against Marshall, but as has been the case this month, Turgeon eventually opted against playing them together for much of the game.
Fernando and Smith bring rim protection and rebounding when they're on the floor together, but the lane can get a bit clogged on the offensive end considering neither is much of an outside shooter at this stage. The Terps have played smoother offensively with the 6-foot-8 Lindo at the four spot and Fernando or Smith at the five.
"It's a lot different," Fernando said of playing with and without Smith. "Obviously we've got that high-low game going on. Obviously when he's not in the game with me, we try to find different ways to score and different options on offense. But it definitely makes a big difference."
The Terps have played low- and mid-major teams so far, so they haven't had to compete with opponents' size inside. With better competition looming, Fernando and Smith may need to play together more to match up with opponents inside.
5. With no true knockdown 3-point shooters on the roster -- but plenty of capable shooters -- different players might have to shine each night from 3-point range.
With former Maryland guard Kevin Huerter off to the NBA, the Terps entered the season without a shooter who forces defenses to account for his ability from 3-point range every time down the court. Cowan is a career 34.2 percent shooter from deep, Morsell isn't a shooter and none of the freshmen came to College Park with reputations as shooters other than Wiggins. The Terps are shooting just 31 percent from 3-point range as a team thus far.
As such, different players might have to step up from the outside each night. Against Marshall, it was Ayala. Against Mount St. Mary's Nov. 18, it was Serrel Smith (3-for-6). Against Hofstra Nov. 16, it was Wiggins (3-for-6).
"We've got good shooters," Turgeon said. "Guys are just getting more comfortable."
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