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Maryland men’s basketball needs more efficient production out of its top players

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The Terps have been struggling and their top guys haven’t been playing at a high level.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

There are critical moments in a season where change can be a good thing.

But for Maryland men’s basketball, only time will tell whether or not the changes that have been made to the program will benefit it for the rest of the 2021-22 season.

Danny Manning has stepped in as the interim head coach for the remainder of the season, while Mark Turgeon parted ways with the team he went 226-116 overall with and led to five NCAA Tournament appearances in the past seven years. This program, which not too long ago clinched a share of its first Big Ten conference title back in 2020 under Turgeon’s guidance, is going through a significant shift.

“He wanted to put his family first and, you know, we all respect that,” senior guard Eric Ayala said of Turgeon’s departure. “Me, I’ve been with Coach Turgeon the longest and been able to build that relationship with him, and I know how much he loves his family and I admire him as a man for making that decision.”

Maryland is just 5-4 and it has been riding on quite the rocky road so far. Out of 358 teams in the NCAA Men’s Basketball NET Rankings, the Terps are at the No. 155 spot, much further down than anyone ever expected this team filled with prized transfers and strong returners would have been at this point in the year. The offense has been a major issue, and most recently, Maryland has hit a major rut that has derailed the early portion of its season before Big Ten play rolls around.

The Terps have lost three straight games to Louisville, Virginia Tech and Northwestern. Maryland is averaging 58 points per game during its three-game skid. With just five wins in the opening nine games to start the season, along with an uncharacteristic 4-3 home record, Maryland will need a bounce back, and quickly.

For now, it remains to be seen if Maryland can find success with Manning leading the way after Turgeon spent 10-plus seasons in College Park. That’s not to say that Maryland’s 67-61 loss to Northwestern on Sunday is directly on Manning. In fact, it’s tough to blame him for the defeat at all. Maryland’s former assistant coach had a decent game from the bench in his first matchup as the interim head coach.

“We still feel like we’re close,” Manning said after the loss to Northwestern. “Obviously, we need more victories but we feel like we tighten up and fine-tune... we can still accomplish what we want to accomplish.”

So, with Turgeon out of the picture and Manning without much fault at hand as a man that has taken on a lot over the last few days, who is to blame? You can look at the numbers any way you want to, but at the end of the day, Maryland’s top players are not producing enough for this team to be contenders. Not only are the team’s top guards and forwards not doing enough for the program to fight for a spot in the top half of the Big Ten, but their overall inconsistency is pushing Maryland even further down the standings.

Let’s start with the senior guard Ayala. Ayala has been more than an effective player within the Maryland program since joining the team as a freshman in 2018-19. Every ounce of expectation that was put on Maryland was always going to fall on Ayala’s shoulders as well, and he himself entered the year with expectations, too.

Ayala was named to the 2022 Jerry West Shooting Guard of the Year Award watch list and he was ranked as a top-25 overall player by Andy Katz and CBS Sports. And while the 6-foot-5 score-first guard is extremely talented, his inconsistency is something you can’t help but notice this season.

The guard scored 10 points in the Northwestern defeat, which was third-most on the Terps. But his 2-for-12 shooting clip from the field and six turnovers are the stats that immediately pop out.

It would be fine for Maryland if those shooting troubles from its presumable top-scorer weren’t a common occurrence. However, Ayala’s shooting has been one of the catalysts for Maryland’s poor scoring offense. The 10 points against the Wildcats marked the fifth time in nine games that Ayala has scored 13 or fewer points. He has double-digit shot attempts in seven games this season, yet he’s shot over 39% from the field just once in those games.

Ayala is in quite the slump during Maryland’s three-game losing streak. In the past three games, he has combined for just 21 points, 6-for-28 shooting, 11 turnovers and a 25% clip from three-point range. The Terps’ struggles are on-par with how Ayala has been playing, but it’s not just the senior.

Two of Maryland’s transfers, guard Fatts Russell and center Qudus Wahab, were intended to fully round out a roster that returned an adequate amount of experienced players. They too have had their fair share of inconsistency, but the transfer duo once again underperformed in the Terps’ first Big Ten game of 2021.

Russell, an explosive, pass-first point guard that came to Maryland from Rhode Island, has seen his play drop off since he totaled 12, 15 and 22 points in the first three games of the season, respectfully. The graduate guard out of Philadelphia has had a rough stretch over the last six games.

Over that span, Russell has shot over 38% from the floor just once and he’s averaging nearly three turnovers per game. During Maryland’s three-game losing streak, Russell is just 9-for-33 from the floor (27.3%). He's capable of scoring in double figures each game, but Russell has failed to cap off many of his swift bursts to the rim with a bucket. There are times when he has been erratic when driving into the paint, and those moments sometimes overshadow his gifted ability to attack the basket.

Russell finished with 11 points on 25% shooting, four rebounds, five assists and one turnover when all was said and done against Northwestern.

Wahab, the big man transfer from Georgetown, also struggled against Northwestern and has had an up-and-down campaign in his first season in College Park. The center got most of his production from the free-throw line, totaling five makes on eight tries, but he was just 1-for-5 from the field and ended with seven points in 27 minutes.

The 6-foot-11 Wahab was supposed to be the missing piece to Maryland’s rotation. And at times he has shown he can be that missing piece to the puzzle. His inside moves are strong and his footwork is solid, and Wahab has a soft touch in the paint that most big men yearn for. Yet the production just hasn’t been there.

Before putting in seven points in the bout with Northwestern, the junior scored in the single digits in four of his previous six games. His minutes on the court have seen an uptick recently, despite the progression of freshman forward Julian Reese’s game, but his shooting has dipped under 38% in three of the last four games. Wahab has all the tools to be a dominant center, but right now, turnovers and getting clogged up down low have caused issues for his game in the paint area in which he’s meant to thrive.

And then there’s Donta Scott. Scott is typically a brilliant two-way player for Maryland, but as of late, the forward who is in his third season with the program has been very streaky. After having a breakout game in the loss to George Mason, Scott’s shooting woes returned.

Scott has shot 25%, 37.5% twice, an efficient 55.6% and then most recently 18.2% against Northwestern in his past five games. He scored nine points on 2-for-11 shooting on Sunday. He’s also had three straight games with two turnovers. The efficiency just isn’t quite there yet for the junior, and he has yet to meet up to the preseason expectations that were placed on him.

Maryland’s top four scorers this season are Ayala, Russell, Wahab and Scott. But at the same time, the starters have been inefficient thus far in 2021. That can still change with a rigorous Big Ten schedule approaching, which provides the chance to upset some of the better conference teams in the new year.

The Terps’ top point-getters will need to find a way to turn it around sooner rather than later, or else Maryland will keep falling. Luckily for the program, it plays just three more games in the month of December as it still tries to find its footing under Manning’s leadership.

“I still feel very confident in our team and we’re going to continue to have fight and have trust in each other,” junior Hakim Hart said.