There’s Luka Garza at Iowa, a national player of the year candidate who has scored more points this season than any other player in Division I. Hunter Dickinson, the former DeMatha star at Michigan, has established himself as one of the best freshmen in the nation. Trayce Jackson-Davis at Indiana, Trevion Williams at Purdue and Kofi Cockburn at Illinois also play in the league, waiting to test an opponent’s frontcourt and feast upon teams with weaknesses.
The level of play has perhaps intensified this season, but this isn’t a new trend. The difference for the Maryland Terrapins is they don’t have a player on that list after Jalen Smith and Bruno Fernando, both now in the NBA, flourished in recent seasons. So Maryland (7-6, 2-5) has attempted to work around that glaring weakness during what has become a disappointing start to the team’s league schedule.
“It’s not a good year to be small,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “And normally we’re big and long and athletic around the rim. But we’re not this year, so it is what it is.”
Seven games into the conference schedule, Maryland has already faced an array of top frontcourt players who capitalized on the Terps’ deficiency: Dickinson (26 points vs. Maryland), Garza (24), Jackson-Davis (22) and Cockburn (21). Despite the opposing talent at that position, the Terps have often depended on smaller lineups without 7-foot-2 center Chol Marial or 6-9 forward Galin Smith.
After turning to Smith or Marial throughout much of the nonconference schedule, Turgeon became increasingly reliant on smaller but versatile players Donta Scott, Jairus Hamilton and Darryl Morsell shuffling in and out of the two frontcourt positions. Maryland has used such groupings about 50 percent of the time during Big Ten play. The small lineups have accumulated a minus-16 point differential, while the lineups with a traditional center have a minus-33 point differential across all conference games this season.
“We are who we are, and we’ve got to figure out a way to guard with this lineup,” Turgeon said after Dickinson bullied Maryland in Michigan’s win Dec. 31. “I’m going to put the best players on the floor, and if they’re all 6-6 or shorter, that’s what we’re going to do.”
Beginning in late December against La Salle and extending through five Big Ten matchups, Marial and Smith never combined to play more than 20 minutes in a game. That trend abruptly changed Sunday, when the Terps knocked off No. 12 Illinois on the road. In the 66-63 win, Smith recorded a season-high 27 minutes and Marial took that spot for eight, leaving Maryland little time with the smaller lineups that had become common.
Smith played well against Illinois, and Turgeon could start relying more on the senior who transferred from Alabama in the offseason. Cockburn scored 21 points on 8-for-10 shooting, but he only attempted two shots in the second half. Smith scored two points on a hook shot and missed his two other attempts. Maryland doesn’t need its center to become a prolific scorer; a solid defensive effort is enough to give this team a boost in conference play.
“He battled and he battled and he battled,” Turgeon said. “He really has a great feel for our offense. He’s a really good screener. Happy for him. We praised him in the locker room. I thought he played great.”
Against the Illini, Smith started alongside Scott and guards Hakim Hart, Aaron Wiggins and Morsell. With point guard Eric Ayala out because of a groin injury, Hart took over ballhandling duties. Ayala leads the team in scoring at 14 points per game, but this lineup offered tremendous length on defense. (At 6-5, Morsell is the shortest player.) Morsell’s career-high 19 points, plus solid offensive outings from Scott and Hart, remedied the absence of Ayala. That lineup played roughly 18 minutes together against the Illini, leading the Terps to their second conference win.
A slightly different lineup — the same group but with Ayala instead of Morsell — played considerable minutes against Indiana and Iowa. Morsell missed the game against the Hoosiers after fracturing a bone in his face, and the senior played poorly in his return against Iowa. Maryland lost both games, but that lineup — Ayala, Wiggins, Hart, Scott and Smith — built a 17-7 advantage in the first six minutes against Iowa and pushed Maryland ahead of Michigan early in the second half before the Terps collapsed.
Marial, the other option at center, arrived at Maryland before the 2019-20 season, and needed surgery to repair stress fractures in both legs. Marial joined the Terps as a high-upside player, but he was not ready for Big Ten competition — an acceptable profile for a player who receives a team’s final scholarship spot. He has showed improvement at times this season, but Turgeon said Marial is not the team’s solution when it comes to low-post scoring. Marial has only averaged 7.8 minutes per game, and Maryland hopes he can eventually develop into a solid rim-protector.
That lack of depth in the frontcourt has led Turgeon to turn to smaller lineups, which have fared surprisingly well against some opponents. The Terps’ best group — Ayala, Wiggins, Hart, Morsell and Scott — played nearly 10 minutes during the second half when Maryland defeated then-No. 6 Wisconsin. That lineup played the final 7:40 against Purdue, and the Terps tied the score late after beginning that stretch trailing by eight. The small lineup is only successful if Scott, a 6-7 forward, can compete with opposing big men in the paint.
“Our forwards have been fighting,” Ayala said after the win over Wisconsin, which required Scott, Morsell and Hamilton to regularly guard 6-11 senior Nate Reuvers and 6-10 senior Micah Potter. Those two finished with a combined 12 points on 6-for-18 shooting. In that game, Smith played 11 minutes and Marial played three, but Turgeon primarily used lineups with smaller forwards.
“You’ve got to have the mind-set [that], if you’re small, you’re already at a disadvantage,” Morsell said. “If you’re at a disadvantage, you’ve got to give more if you want to win.”
Offensively, those lineups are favorable with slower forwards guarding Maryland’s versatile players — such as Scott, who leads the team with 23 three-pointers — on the perimeter. But then the Terps must fight the size disadvantage on the other end.
Smith and Marial would help in that regard, but if they also struggle to defend those big men, it makes sense for Turgeon to commit to the smaller group with more offensive potential. There’s no perfect solution; that’s why Maryland has only won twice in seven conference games. And so the shuffled lineups are likely to continue — with the Terps’ hopes for the season depending on their success.
“We’re trying everything — trust me,” Turgeon said. “We’re not staying status quo. We’re trying to figure it out.