For much of this season, the Maryland men's basketball team has had to rely on a rotation that contains five freshmen.
But thankfully for head coach Mark Turgeon, three of the five freshmen who play significant minutes have increasingly become more reliable off the bench as the season has worn on. The timing couldn't be more ideal as the Terps head into the meat of their Big Ten conference play in 2019.
After a four-point loss to Seton Hall Dec. 22, Turgeon said he noticed junior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. and sophomore center Bruno Fernando -- the team leaders in minutes played -- looked tired. More young players would have to play major minutes.
"They were still trying really hard but they were tired," Turgeon said of Fernando, who played 36 minutes, and Cowan, who played 38 in the game. "We had to get more people involved and we've been able to do that."
Turgeon's reinforcements have been the freshman trio of Aaron Wiggins, Serrel Smith Jr., both guards, and forward Ricky Lindo Jr. They've helped solidify the bench just as conference play heats up, during which depth, especially late in games, is key. The Terps visit Minnesota Jan. 8, then faces three ranked teams -- No. 22 Indiana Jan. 11, No. 16 Ohio State Jan. 18 and No. 6 Michigan State Jan. 21 -- in their next four games.
Wiggins started four games early in the season before moving to the bench but is still averaging about 25 minutes a game. He played 28 minutes off the bench against Radford Dec. 29, hitting three 3-pointers in a 14-point rout.
"It's just me not forcing it, just me being aggressive but allowing the game to come to me and not looking for a shot or looking to make certain plays and having in my mind already made up with how I'm going to attack certain plays," Wiggins said. "It's really just letting the game come to me and just flowing that way."
Lindo has become another spark plug off the bench, nearly posting a double-double against Radford and capped off 16 minutes of playing time against Nebraska -- his third-highest minute total of the season -- by deflecting a potential game-tying lob at the buzzer to secure the 74-72 victory against the Cornhuskers Jan. 2.
"We have a lot of confidence in Ricky in his defending and his rebounding and he made a good play late in the game [against Nebraska], obviously," Turgeon said. "We weren't afraid to put him in in that situation. He keeps getting better and that's making our team better."
Turgeon singled out Smith for making the biggest strides on both ends of the floor.
"Going from shooting everything in high school to playing my role here, it's a lot different," Smith said. "Coach comes to me before every game and says be ready so that's what I do. I just stay ready until my number's called."
On the road against Rutgers Jan. 5, Smith scored 11 points, including 7 points in a row late in the first half, during a career-high 21 minutes.
"I brag about Bruno [and] how much he's improved from last year to this year, but from June until now no one has improved on this team as much as Serrel has," Turgeon said.
Turgeon has been quick to point out how young his team is -- the Terps are ranked 349th out of 353 Division I programs in terms of playing experience, according to KenPom.com -- but he praised the progress they've made.
"It just takes time with a young team," Turgeon said, pointing to a stretch in the Radford game in which four freshmen were on the floor with senior center Ivan Bender as an example of the young players showing signs of being able to play for long stretches on their own.
"That's the lineup that kind of changed the game for us," he said. "So, it's a little bit different every game. You kind of have to have a feel for it as we go, but guys continue to get better."
"It builds a lot more depth," Smith said. "It helps the team out a lot when you can go to the bench and you can bring many guys from the bench into the game."
WIGGINS TO REMAIN ON BENCH: After starting the first two games of the season, Aaron Wiggins was moved to the bench for eight games before entering the starting lineup against Loyola University (Maryland) Dec. 8 and Seton Hall Dec. 22. Since then, Wiggins has returned to a reserve role where he will remain for the time being, according to Mark Turgeon.
"I just think defensively we're better with where we're starting our lineup," he said, "but I think he plays starter minutes."
MORSELL HAS TAKEN OVER TOP DEFENDER ROLE: For most of the season, Turgeon has tapped guard Anthony Cowan Jr. to defend the opposing team's best player. But to give Cowan a break -- the junior averages nearly 34 minutes a game and leads the Terps in scoring -- Turgeon has opted to give sophomore guard Darryl Morsell the lead defender role. Morsell has matched up with Purdue guard Carsen Edwards and Nebraska guard James Palmer Jr. in recent weeks.
"It's huge for us because we were asking Anthony to do it and it was too much on Anthony's plate," Turgeon said. "Darryl did a great job on Carsen Edwards, pretty good on Palmer. ... It's big for us."
SERREL SMITH A PLEASANT SURPRISE FOR TURGEON: On a trip to scout Serrel Smith Jr., who is from St. Petersburg, Fla., and a second player, Turgeon said he liked both players but opted for the 6-foot-3 Smith because of his scoring ability. When Smith committed to the Terps in April 2018, former Maryland guard Kevin Huerter had not yet decided to leave for the NBA Draft.
"One, it shows he really wanted to be here," Turgeon said, "and our expectation was maybe to redshirt him because he's young for his grade but Kevin left. And Serrel has gotten a lot better. … We are all happy for Serrel because he's such a great kid."
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