- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 6, 2021

The last time Luka Garza played at Xfinity Center, the Iowa center who so frequently dominates proceedings couldn’t dominate Maryland.

Garza still finished with 21 points in that Terrapins win — there’s only so much a team can do against a Naismith Player of the Year candidate — but he hit fewer than half his shots and finished with just four rebounds. Much of that was due to Garza’s early foul trouble, but forward Jalen Smith also proved himself as a capable post defender.

Smith is no longer in College Park, though; he now plays for the Phoenix Suns. And the frontcourt options Maryland does have at its disposal this year aren’t of the same quality as Smith.

So when Garza visits Xfinity Center on Thursday, the Terrapins hope to find a way to do what few teams have managed: slow down Garza. That task will be more difficult without a rim protector of Smith’s stature.

“We’ve struggled last couple games guarding big guys,” Turgeon said. “We’re going to keep plugging, keep trying. We got a game plan; we’ll see if it works. If not, we’ll try something different. But he’s terrific, and he’s just so physical.”

Turgeon has used a small-ball lineup more frequently this season out of necessity. The Terrapins don’t have the size they once did, though. Beyond 7-foot-2 center Chol Marial — who’s only averaging 7.7 minutes per game — there are few options who don’t give up a height advantage to the opponent.

Before Smith guarded Garza, there was Bruno Fernando. Now, the answer for how to deal with Garza is less clear-cut.

“We’ve had a lot of length to guard him, so it’s a little bit different this year,” Turgeon said. “Our team’s totally different defensively. So you practice a bunch of things, and you hope one of them works.”

In consecutive losses, Maryland has struggled to contain opposing big men. On New Year’s Eve, Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson scored 26 points on 10-for-11 shooting while grabbing 11 boards.

Down the stretch against Indiana on Monday, forward Trayce Jackson-Davis took over the game for the Hoosiers. He pulled down 15 rebounds, including several put-back baskets on the offensive end, helping to turn a 10-point second-half deficit into an eight-point win.

“We really got beat on the boards,” guard Reese Mona said Monday. “They were getting offensive rebounds. And I think we just need to do a better job of boxing out and just competing on the boards, because I think that’s where they won.”

Garza has been an imposing presence in the lane on both ends of the floor this season. He’s second in the country with 27.5 points per game, and he’s gathered the second-most offensive rebounds in the Big Ten.

He’s hit at least the 30-point mark five times this season, including a 30-point, 10-rebound performance against No. 1 Gonzaga last month. He marked Christmas Day with a 32-point, 17-board outburst against Minnesota.

Those stat lines have become more and more common for the Washington, D.C., native, exhibiting his skill down low even as some NBA Draft experts knock him for his speed.

“You can throw everything at him,” guard Aaron Wiggins said, “but he’s still going to try to find ways to score and make plays for his team.”

Last year, Turgeon admitted Garza is “almost impossible to guard.” Smith found a way to slow him down by getting in a good starting position early, making an entry pass more difficult. But Smith wasn’t left isolated, either.

He relied on help defense throughout the night, with guards and other forwards collapsing to force Garza to beat multiple defenders or dish the ball. That will be even more imperative Thursday, should 6-foot-7 Donta Scott or 6-foot-8 Jairus Hamilton need to guard the 6-foot-11 Garza.

Turgeon said he figures No. 5 Iowa will know those double-teams are bound to come. Just about every team has done it to Garza this season, and the Terrapins have showed that scheme in other games, too.

“They’ve seen all the double-teams from all different directions,” Turgeon said.

Without the strong post defending presence Maryland has had the past few seasons, much of Thursday’s game might come down to outscoring Iowa. There’s no Smith or Fernando to minimize Garza’s impact.

But for the players who are here, there’s something to prove. Even if the challenge is daunting.

“Everyone’s going to have these opinions on our bigs and us,” Scott said. “As long as we stick together as a family and do what we gotta do, it’s just us.”

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