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3 reasons to be optimistic about Maryland basketball

It’s media day and everyone is in a good mood. Here’s why.

Bruno Fernando Sung Min Kim/Testudo Times

Maryland basketball season is less than three weeks away, and the Terps are starting to step into the spotlight. After taking Chicago for Big Ten Media Day last week, Maryland held its own media day Tuesday. Mark Turgeon talked for 20 minutes, and every player was available later in the afternoon. This will help spawn plenty of content on this site in the coming days and weeks, so stay tuned.

Media days can be full of platitudes and optimism that wears off quickly. We got an “I like my team” from Turgeon for something like the 47th consecutive media day, even though he’s only entering his eighth season at Maryland. The players all feel like they bonded with each other over the summer (particularly so in this case, because the Terps went on a trip to Italy in August). They’ve all improved their weaknesses. They’re all excited for the season.

Sure, there are legitimate questions about the team’s maturity, or its size, or Turgeon as a coach. But this isn’t the time for pessimism. That doesn’t start until Maryland loses a game (or, if you’re really trigger-happy, until the Terps play a subpar half). For now, everything is looking great.

So here are some reasons you should be optimistic and excited.

The freshmen are all coming along well.

This is good news because Maryland has six freshmen and five scholarship players who aren’t freshmen. The Terps’ 2018 recruiting class was ranked No. 7 in the country and best in the Big Ten, and although basketball class rankings are heavily influenced by size, there’s still plenty of promise in this group.

“We knew we signed a good class,” Turgeon said in his press conference, “but across the board, they’re all a little bit better than I thought.”

This was in reference to all the freshmen but prompted by a question about Eric Ayala, whom Turgeon called “a real pleasant surprise for us.” It makes sense that Ayala would be the most college-ready of the group; he spent a postgrad year at IMG Academy in Florida. The 6’5 combo guard is already Maryland’s best passer, Turgeon says, and should slide in at point guard to give Anthony Cowan Jr. the breathers he’ll need (Cowan averaged a conference-high 37 minutes per game last year).

Two other freshmen—five-star forward Jalen Smith and four-star wing Aaron Wiggins—will feature prominently right away. Smith was the No. 15 overall player in the class, and while “Sticks” is still listed at just 215 pounds even after putting on weight this summer, his talent is real. Wiggins has a skill set similar to that of Kevin Huerter, who’d be on this team if he didn’t play his way into being a first-round NBA Draft pick.

Serrel Smith Jr. (who some posters here are calling “Stones” because Jalen Smith is “Sticks” and we’re absolutely rolling with this, by the way) won’t be relied on as frequently. Small forwards Trace Ramsey and Ricky Lindo are closer to projects than immediate impact players, but either could work their way into the rotation. If they do, it’ll make a strong class look even stronger.

The two biggest stars are ready to be leaders.

Cowan and center Bruno Fernando are the Terps’ only two returning double-digit scorers, and with how young this team is, they’ll be counted on as vocal leaders and role models. Cowan was given the keys to the offense after Melo Trimble left in 2017, but with Huerter and Justin Jackson gone, he’s got even more on his plate, he’s made some adjustments to his demeanor in practice.

“I think for me, it’s just being more positive, if anything,” Cowan said. “We’ve got a lot of younger dudes on the team now. When I first got here, people was positive with me when I messed up, when my head was going crazy, so now I just think it’s my job to step into that role.”

Fernando, meanwhile, quickly endeared himself to Maryland fans with his passion and explosiveness. That’s still a huge part of who he is—nobody at the Maryland Mile was more into it—but the 6’10 Angolan enters his sophomore season with both a more complete skill set and the ability to slow the game down when he needs to.

“He’s worked really hard,” Turgeon said. “I think you’ll see a player that plays smarter defensively. Hopefully he won’t forget who he is as a defender and a rebounder. He’s become much more skilled and a much better low block scorer. He’s learned how to get out of fifth gear.”

Darryl Morsell has found his jump shot.

As a freshman, Morsell went 3-for-25 from beyond the arc and wasn’t much of a threat in the midrange game. His defense, rebounding and driving abilities all made him a valuable piece, but opposing defenses didn’t have to respect him when he had the ball on the perimeter. That should change.

Morsell hit four three-pointers in a half during the Terps’ foreign trip, and was burying triples during Tuesday’s open practice. The sophomore says he hasn’t changed much mechanically, but his confidence in his shot is higher than ever, with his breakout game in Italy serving as a launching point.

“That was the first time in a game that I’d done it. The practice leading up to Italy, I was making shots, but being able to do it in a game, it gave me confidence,” Morsell said. “I also think it gave Anthony [Cowan] and my teammates a lot of confidence in me that they know I can make shots.”

Time will tell if all (or any) of these things remain true.

Maryland plays George Mason in a secret scrimmage this weekend, then hosts Lynn College for its public exhibition on Oct. 30. The real season opener is Nov. 6 against Delaware, and the schedule gets a little tougher toward the end of the month. For now, though, there’s nothing not to like.