In a perfect world, Serrel Smith wouldn’t have been the Maryland men’s basketball guard who was dribbling into traffic with coach Mark Turgeon’s team only trailing No. 4 Virginia by one possession Wednesday. Ricky Lindo wouldn’t have been the forward forcing contested layups.
But after Turgeon stuck with his starting five even after the under-16 timeout, he said he felt he had no choice but to go for a mass substitution at the under-12 stoppage, leaving Eric Ayala as the lone starter on the floor.
In the two-minute stretch that preceded forwards Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith and guard Anthony Cowan’s return, the Terps’ offense turned the ball over twice and didn’t score, as the Cavaliers began to pull away at Xfinity Center.
“I felt I had to do it,” Turgeon said, “because guys were exhausted.”
For Turgeon, it displayed the season-long reliance on his top-six players and an understandable reluctance to lean on a shallow and inexperienced bench, especially against a marquee opponent. Through the first seven games, which have featured mainly tune-up foes to aid the transition for a young team, Maryland’s top-six players have accounted more heavily for scoring and minutes than ever before in Turgeon’s eight-year College Park tenure.
Still, Turgeon believes his squad, which battled back Wednesday to slim what had been a 17-point deficit to a 76-71 loss, has the potential to produce off the bench. And with Big Ten play opening Saturday against Penn State, that production would be a welcome addition.
“I’m hoping we can be a deep team moving forward,” Turgeon said. “You know, we’ll see. And there’s no guarantees if you’re in the rotation one game you’re going to be in it the next if you’re not performing.”
Guard Aaron Wiggins, who has played starter minutes off the bench for Maryland, sat beneath the scorer’s table for about four minutes Wednesday, waiting for his chance to enter the game. But play didn’t stop, and as it continued, Turgeon sent Wiggins some company.
By the time Wiggins checked in, he did so alongside Smith Jr., Lindo and Ivan Bender.
Those would be the only two minutes Bender or Lindo played against Virginia. This year, Maryland’s top-six players — Cowan, Fernando, Ayala, Jalen Smith and Darryl Morsell — have accounted for 91 percent of 580 total points scored and been on the floor for 82 percent of the 1,400 minutes played.
Both tallies are the highest in Turgeon’s era, the next closest coming in 2015-16 — Melo Trimble’s sophomore year — when the top-six contributors produced 89 percent of the team’s points and accumulated 82 percent of the minutes.
“We played eight against Marshall. We felt comfortable with that,” Turgeon said. “Rotation might be 10 one game, depending on matchups, foul trouble.”
Serrel Smith, who played eight minutes and scored two points against the Cavaliers, is averaging just over 12 minutes per game this year. He’s nearest to becoming another go-to bench option, highlighted by his 19-minute, 13-point display against Mount St. Mary’s last week.
Lindo, too, has proven to be a vital frontcourt piece — joining the Terps late, after center Schnider Herard left the team in August — to provide Fernando and Jalen Smith some rest.
Both players are part of a six-man freshmen class that’s expected to produce immediately, and many of them have during Maryland’s 6-1 start. Now, with an early dose of Big Ten play Saturday, it remains to be seen how soon — if ever — the Terps’ production evens out to include more rotational players.
“We can go really deep with our bench,” Wiggins said. “As time progresses, a lot of us can start to step up a little bit more. … A lot of us coming off the bench, we’ll be really good and we’ll start to mature and grow a lot.”
Staff writer Jordan Katz contributed to this article.