COLLEGE PARK -- The small-ball lineups that Maryland used extensively in Thursday’s win over Illinois simply were not feasible at different points earlier this season.
With Dion Wiley out for the season after undergoing knee surgery, head coach Mark Turgeon had to lean on other reserves in the backcourt rotation for production. The problem? Sophomore Jared Nickens slipped into the deepest shooting slump of his college career and junior-college transfer Jaylen Brantley had not yet adjusted to the Division I game.
“We didn’t really have much of a bench there for six weeks at the the guard position,” Turgeon said bluntly after the victory over Illinois. “They’re playing better now.”
After shooting 11-of-55 (20 percent) from three-point range over a 16-game stretch that spanned back to late December, Nickens is now 9-of-16 (56 percent) from deep over his last three.
What his re-emergence has allowed Turgeon to do is shift Jake Layman, who has played small forward all season, down to the power forward spot and insert Nickens as a wing player. He spreads the floor there alongside two guards and makes Maryland a much more well-spaced team offensively.
That means better looks for shooters on the perimeter, more space for bigs to operate in the post, and more room for guards like Melo Trimble when penetrating into the paint.
“I think small-ball worked to our advantage offensive and defensively because Jake can guard threes and fours,” Nickens said on Saturday. “I think either lineup we have on the floor will help us.”
But shooting well alone didn’t allow Nickens to find a spot in the regular rotation when the Terrapins go small.
Had he not progressed defensively like he has this season, it still would not be possible. Nickens said he worked with strength and conditioning coach Kyle Tarp in the offseason on foot speed and awareness to help him progress.
“It’s huge for us,” Turgeon said. “Jared’s doing it on both ends.”