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No. 7 Maryland men’s basketball vs Holy Cross preview

The highly touted Terps make their 2019-20 season debut against the Crusaders.

Darryl Morsell Maryland men’s basketball Sarah Sopher / Testudo Times

It’s officially basketball season in College Park.

No. 7 Maryland men’s basketball is ready to kick off the 2019-20 season, as the Terps will welcome in Holy Cross Tuesday night. The Crusaders are entering a new regime with a new head coach, and nobody knows what to expect from them. The Terps, on the other hand, are in their ninth season of the Mark Turgeon era, and they’re coming off a heartbreaking loss in the 2019 NCAA Tournament to LSU.

“We’re hungry. We know we got a target on our back,” senior point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. said.

Tuesday night’s game is scheduled to tip off at 7:30 p.m. ET, and coverage will be broadcast on BTN Plus ($).

Holy Cross Crusaders

2018-19 record: 16-17 (6-12 Patriot League)

Head coach Brett Nelson is entering his first year in charge in Worcester, Massachusetts, following the exit of Bill Carmody. The Crusaders haven’t posted a winning record in their last five seasons, and it doesn’t seem this is the year that all changes. Before Holy Cross, Nelson was an assistant coach at Marquette.

Players to know

Austin Butler, junior guard, 6’5, 212 lbs, No. 4. Butler is one of two returning starters on the team, along with Matt Faw (more on that later). After being selected to the Patriot League All-Rookie team two years ago, Butler got even better as a sophomore. Last season, he averaged 12.6 points per game (third on the team, best among returning players) while adding 4.1 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.5 steals.

Matt Faw, junior forward, 6’9, 223 lbs, No. 15. Faw is the other returning starter on this team, and he’ll be the main presence down low for the Crusaders. He wasn’t much of a contributor as a freshman, averaging just 4.3 points and 1.7 rebounds per game. As a starting big last year, he still didn’t make too much of an impact, averaging 6.7 points and 3.1 rebounds. With Jehyve Floyd — the reigning Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year — having graduated, Faw will have to pick up the slack in the paint.

Connor Niego, junior forward, 6’8, 212 lbs, No. 5. Injuries derailed Niego’s sophomore campaign a year ago, as he played in just 10 games throughout the course of the season. When he did play, however, he was excellent, making over half his field goals while hitting 42.9 percent of his three-point attempts.

Strength

Turnovers. Holy Cross didn’t do much well in the 2018-19 season, but it was borderline elite at taking care of the ball and forcing other teams into turnovers. With 513 assists and 350 turnovers, the Crusaders posted a 1.47 assist-to-turnover ratio, which was the best mark in the conference and ranked No. 10 in the nation. They also forced 479 turnovers, giving the Crusaders a plus-3.91 turnover margin, which was best in the Patriot League and tied for ninth-best in the country.

Weakness

Pace. Holy Cross finished second-worst in the Patriot League with a 67.2 points per game average a year ago. That figure also ranked 301st out of 351 Division I teams, which left a lot to be desired. But the Crusaders weren’t a poor-shooting team. Their .462 field goal percentage and .354 mark from beyond the arc were both in the top-five of the conference, but due to a slow pace, they simply did not take enough shots to be a successful team offensively.

Three things to watch

1. Who will start for Maryland? The Terps seem to have four starters locked in right now — guard Anthony Cowan Jr., guard Eric Ayala, guard Aaron Wiggins and forward Jalen Smith. The fifth, however, is up for grabs. Any of Darryl Morsell, Ricky Lindo Jr. or even freshman Makhi Mitchell could earn the nod in the season opener, and that could set the tone for the entire season.

“I haven’t [picked a starting five],” Turgeon said Monday. “I had one when the day started and the guy — won’t say his name — just took the day off, so he’s probably not going to start tomorrow. So we’ll see. The good thing for me is that I got a lot of good players, so if guys don’t want to practice hard, I can put someone else in there.”

That means someone won’t be in the lineup that could have been, but until first tip, we’re left in the dark.

2. What does Holy Cross look like? The Crusaders have a new head coach, and they’ve also lost three of their four leading scorers, all three of which were full-time starters. That leaves a lot of question marks in terms of what can be expected of Holy Cross, especially in its first game of the season. It also makes for a challenging game plan on Maryland’s side of things, as there isn’t useful tape to evaluate heading into the matchup.

“We got some pretty smart guys though, so we pick up real quick,” Morsell said Monday afternoon. “We’re deep, we can play any kind of way, so we just got to stick our principles and come out ready to play.”

3. How will Anthony Cowan Jr. distribute? Cowan won’t have trouble scoring — he’s done so effectively his entire career, though he was less efficient last year than as a sophomore. Maryland plans on running a higher-tempo offense in his final year with the program, and passing is crucial to a successful transition. After averaging just 3.7 assists per game last year, look for Cowan to facilitate more in 2019-20.

Predictions

Vegas: Maryland -26, O/U 136 (as of Monday night)

ESPN FPI: Maryland 96.8% chance to win

Me: Maryland 82, Holy Cross 53