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Five Questions Entering Maryland Men's Basketball Season

November 4, 2019
Maryland basketball season is finally here.

It's been a long waiting game since the Terps ended their 2018-19 campaign in the NCAA Tournament's second round. Bruno Fernando left in the offseason, but the rest of the core returns. Maryland is No. 7 in the preseason AP poll. Expectations are high. Starting Nov. 5, though, hype will begin to give way to results.

The Terps have one public exhibition result in the books, a 76-43 win against Division II Fayetteville State Nov. 1. It was a classic tune-up game, as 15 Terps checked in and 11 scored. Fans now have a look at the new pieces and how they fit in with the returning players. There's a lot to be excited about, from one more season of Anthony Cowan Jr. to a loaded group of sophomores to another year with the Baltimore duo of Jalen Smith and Darryl Morsell

The countdown ends at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 5 as Maryland hosts Holy Cross. Here are a few final questions before the five-month journey begins.

1. HOW DOES THE STARTING LINEUP TAKE SHAPE?

Head coach Mark Turgeon has plenty of options here, and he took time to experiment in the Nov. 1 scrimmage. Maryland's starting five included guards Eric Ayala, Darryl Morsell and Aaron Wiggins and forwards Ricky Lindo and Jalen Smith. The Terps started the second half with Anthony Cowan Jr. (who's started all 99 games in his career), Morsell, Wiggins, Smith and center Makhi Mitchell.

Maryland had a clear-cut top six last season, with Wiggins serving as the sixth man, but he seems to have played his way into a surefire starting role. It's easy to forecast a crunch-time five of Cowan, Ayala, Wiggins, Morsell and Smith, but if Turgeon prefers starting games with a bigger lineup -- his history indicates he does -- Ayala might be the odd man out. That leaves a spot open for Lindo or Mitchell in the frontcourt, and they could go back and forth early in the year.

And this isn't even mentioning sophomore guard Serrel Smith Jr. or freshman wing Donta Scott, who might be in the mix for a starting spot on most Maryland teams this decade. With nine viable options (and potentially more as the year goes on), Turgeon has a good conundrum on his hands.

"The good thing for me is if one guy is not playing well, I can go with another guy," Turgeon said following the scrimmage. "I think we have enough bodies to where we can figure it out and get better."

2. HOW MUCH CAN THE FRESHMEN ADD?

As discussed previously, Maryland won't rely on the rookies as much as last season. But Mitchell has a chance to start, and Scott looks like he'll be a staple in the early rotation. Mitchell tallied four points, eight rebounds and three blocks in 24 minutes Nov. 1, while Scott had 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting -- two of his buckets were threes and two were dunks in transition -- to go with five boards. Makhel Mitchell, Makhi's twin brother, chipped in three points and two rebounds in more limited action.

After the game, Wiggins raved about Scott's constant energy. "He was out there playing every position and running as hard as he could back to defense and offensively," Wiggins said. "You saw the two breakout dunks we had he just brings a lot of energy to us." 

Wiggins' positive review of the twins included their communication on defense, which improved during the game. Turgeon continued to rave about the rookies' toughness and passing abilities. Freshmen recorded five of Maryland's 15 assists in the exhibition -- Makhi Mitchell had two, Scott had two and shooting guard Hakim Hart added one.

The one rookie who hasn't seen the floor yet is Chol Marial, a 7-foot-2 center with a 7-foot-11 wingspan and stretch-five skill set. He's expected back sometime in December or January after undergoing surgery to repair stress fractures in both legs. It's unclear what he'll be able to bring upon his return, but his upside is worth getting excited about. 

3. DOES MARYLAND CHANGE ITS DEFENSIVE FOOTPRINT?

Turgeon's Maryland teams have played almost exclusively man-to-man defense during his tenure. Last year, though, the Terps successfully busted out a zone in key moments. Such a switch changed the story of their NCAA Tournament game against LSU, helping them turn a 15-point deficit into a late lead before losing a back-and-forth finish.

Maryland played man, a stretch 3-2 zone and even an occasional press during the scrimmage. Expect the Terps to try different looks in their early games, seeing what works and what doesn't. In this one, switching to the zone helped Maryland throw Fayetteville State off its rhythm after a shaky start.

"It was good," Turgeon said of the zone. "We're going to get better in it as we play more and get used to it. Our big guys were a little bit slow on rotations a couple of times. Once they figured that out, we're so long, it'll give us a chance to be good defensively."

4. CAN THE TERPS CHANGE THEIR TURNOVER FORTUNES?

Last year's team graded well in most statistical categories, but it ranked 234th nationally in offensive turnover percentage and 352nd (second-to-last) in defensive turnover percentage, per KenPom.com, a college hoops analytics site. Maryland's overall turnover margin -- minus-3.6 per game -- was 336th, a stunningly low number for a team that still reached the NCAA Tournament. 

To make matters worse, most of the Terps' offensive turnovers in 2018-19 were of the live-ball variety. Per KenPom, 10.4 percent of Maryland's offensive possessions resulted in steals, which translates to easy opportunities the other way. It'll be on Cowan and Ayala, who will share point guard responsibilities, to lead a cleaner offense this season.

Maryland's defense still ranked 21st in KenPom last season despite forcing so few turnovers -- the Terps had good length and patience defensively, but weren't aggressive often enough. Mixing defensive systems and utilizing the press should help reverse this narrative, and Maryland certainly has the athletes to wreak havoc on this end of the floor. 

It's an encouraging sign that the Terps forced 19 turnovers and committed just six in the scrimmage. But the regular season will tell the real story.

5. WHICH OPPONENTS WILL PRESENT THE TOUGHEST CHALLENGES?

Maryland is one of four Big Ten teams ranked in the AP's preseason top 25 -- Michigan State is the consensus No. 1, while Ohio State comes in at No. 18 and Purdue is No. 22. There's only one ranked foe in the nonconference slate: No. 20 Seton Hall. The Terps visit the Pirates Dec. 20. These opponents account for six of Maryland's 31 scheduled games (Michigan State and Ohio State are home-and-homes).

The Spartans are the Big Ten's prohibitive favorites, with Player of the Year frontrunner Cassius Winston leading a group that's mostly intact from a Final Four run. Ohio State returns most of its lineup and brings in five-star point guard D.J. Carton. Purdue lost Carsen Edwards but will lean on the frontcourt trio of Nojel Eastern, Treyvion Williams and Matt Haarms. And Seton Hall has Myles Powell, Myles Cale and one of the nation's tallest front lines.

But who else steps up? The Big Ten is deep, with 10 teams in KenPom's top 50. Michigan still has defensive stalwarts Jon Teske and Zavier Simpson. Illinois returns its top three after improving late last season. Wisconsin has most of its non-Ethan Happ pieces back in place. Meetings with Rhode Island (No. 83 in KenPom) and Notre Dame (42nd) are already on the nonconference docket. And a run in the Orlando Invitational could lead to a meeting with Markus Howard's Marquette.

If preseason rankings for Maryland's opponents hold or improve, this is shaping up to be the Terps' toughest schedule in years. But they've certainly got the tools to handle it.

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox