Mark Turgeon noticed a bounce in his players' step as they walked into practice Feb. 5. The extra energy might have been partially due to the Maryland head men's basketball coach giving his team the weekend off after a tough road loss to Wisconsin Feb. 1, but Turgeon said his players were still buzzing from a field trip to Washington, D.C., Feb. 4.
The Terps watched former Maryland stars Kevin Huerter and Alex Len, the two highest NBA draft picks during Turgeon's eight-year tenure, play for the Atlanta Hawks at Capital One Arena, a short Metro ride from where they once donned Maryland uniforms.
"They had a great time last night," Turgeon said. "Kevin and Alex played great and they got a win. It was really good -- the whole Metro down there, the Metro back. It was really good for Kevin and Alex, and it was really good for my guys."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics
The Hawks defeated the Wizards, 137-129. Huerter, the 19th pick in last year's draft, finished second on the team with 19 points on 5-of-6 shooting from 3-point range with five rebounds and four assists. Len, the fifth overall pick by the Phoenix Suns in 2013, had two points and three boards in 14 minutes.
Sophomore guard Darryl Morsell, who played with Huerter last season, said he and his teammates were cheering for Huerter from the stands all game.
"It was fun. We were down there screaming," Morsell said. "He was looking up, throwing his hand up at us. It's just good to see somebody that you played with make it to the next level because you know that's everybody's dream."
After the game, Maryland players met Len and Huerter to talk and catch up.
"We got to see him after the game. [Huerter is] loving it there," Morsell said. "It was a great experience to see him and just his family and see how happy they are for him."
Sophomore center Bruno Fernando, a highly rated NBA prospect himself, said it was motivating to watch Len and Huerter play in person after sharing the court with the latter last season.
"We were on the same court, and now we're seeing them play at the highest level," said Fernando, who is ranked
No. 29 on ESPN's NBA Draft big board
. "[To] be able to talk to them and be around them after the game and just seeing the environment … being able to hang out with them and watch them play is fun and motivating for us, and obviously for Maryland as a school, it's a really proud moment."
Fernando has received praise for his improvement from his first to second year after entering the NBA Draft process last summer. The star big man is averaging a double-double (14.8 points, 10.3 rebounds per game) and earned Big Ten Player of the Week and Naismith Player of the Week honors in January.
Morsell said he keeps in touch with Huerter often. Huerter's words of encouragement usually come by text message.
"He's one of our biggest fans," Morsell said. "He texts me all the time, telling me to keep shooting the ball, keep my head up, keep doing what I'm doing."
Huerter's advice might just be working. During his last seven games, Morsell, a career 24 percent 3-point shooter, is 8-of-14 (57 percent) from deep. He has made at least one 3-pointer in six of those games.
MARYLAND STAYS RANKED: The Terps were ranked No. 13 in the AP poll released Jan. 21, but after losing three of their last four, there was a chance they might drop out of the rankings for the first time in a month. Maryland came in ranked at No. 24 Feb. 4, a sign, Turgeon said, that voters respect his team despite its recent slide.
"I think the later in the year you're ranked says something about you and your program," he said. "I know the guys look at [the rankings]. I was a little surprised but happy, to be quite honest with you. But I feel like it'll give us confidence."
A BRUTAL JANUARY SCHEDULE MAKES WAY FOR A LIGHT FEBRUARY: The Terps had a stretch of nine games in 28 days in January, during which they recorded seven wins, including three Big Ten road victories. Maryland now has just six games remaining in the month of February. The extra time between games will be spent practicing and watching film, according to Turgeon. It's something the Terps didn't often get to do last month with such an intense schedule.
"It's time to focus in," Morsell said. "A lot more time to practice, more time to work on execution."
A CHANCE FOR A FOURTH BIG TEN ROAD WIN AGAINST NEBRASKA: The Terps visit a floundering Nebraska team (13-9, 3-8 Big Ten) Feb. 6 that has dropped five straight and lost senior Isaac Copeland for the season with a torn ACL suffered against Ohio State Jan. 26. Nebraska still poses a tough test despite their recent poor form, Turgeon said, adding that it will be imperative for Maryland's ball-handlers to take care of the basketball. The Cornhuskers rank first in the conference with 7.86 steals per game.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, COACH TURGEON: Just prior to media availability Feb. 5, junior guard Anthony Cowan made sure to tell everyone it was his coach's 54th birthday. "Thanks, Ant," a sheepish Turgeon said. When asked what he's doing for his birthday, Turgeon said: "Traveling to Lincoln, Nebraska."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics