The 2019-20 Maryland men’s basketball season was always supposed to be remembered for what happened in March. The Terps would either validate the preseason hype and consistent national ranking with a notable postseason run, or they’d add to a list of tournament exits that felt just a bit too early. Head coach Mark Turgeon, senior point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. and the rest of the crew had something left to prove.
And now they won’t be able to prove it.
The coronavirus pandemic has rocked the sports world, putting virtually all major professional seasons on pause. The NCAA outright canceled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments March 12, one day after announcing plans to contest games with no fans. Everything moved so quickly. Games went on as normal the night of March 11, only for the season to completely stop the next day.
All we’re left to do is wonder what could have been and appreciate what was.
Looking back at the season
Maryland started the year ranked No. 7 in the country and moved as high as No. 3 in November thanks to a 10-0 start. But the Terps followed that with consecutive losses at Penn State and Seton Hall, and then twin bigs Makhi and Makhel Mitchell entered the transfer portal. Maryland lost two more road games at Iowa and Wisconsin to fall to 3-3 in the Big Ten Jan. 14. Then came a nine-game winning streak and a conference lead as large as 2.5 games. But after losing three of four, Maryland needed a win against Michigan March 8 to clinch even a share of the regular-season title.
Even 31 games in, fans could easily convince themselves that this Maryland team hadn’t reached its ceiling. This looked early on like one of the deepest teams in the country, but from December on, the Terps only had six players who merited crunch-time minutes. And even among those six, sophomores Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala both saw their shooting numbers dip from last season (Ayala especially so). The team as a whole shot just 31.1 percent from long range.
Maryland also made slow starts a season-long habit, trailing at halftime in 14 of 31 games.
But this team showed plenty of fight, and the season will be remembered for its long list of comebacks. Maryland rallied from 14 points down to beat Illinois in the final seconds at home.
The Terps also erased 14-point deficits at Northwestern and Illinois later in the year. Then there were the late charges — a 7-0 run in the final 1:08 to beat Indiana by one, and a 14-0 run in the final 3:08 to win at Michigan State. And the Minnesota comeback topped them all — Maryland trailed by as many as 17 and was still down four with 15 seconds left before Darryl Morsell’s triple lifted the Terps to victory.
Our lasting memories of this team, though, will likely be from the Michigan game, when the Terps clinched a conference title on Senior Day. Cowan came off the floor in the final minute and Turgeon lifted him off the ground with a hug. The team gathered at midcourt to hoist the trophy.
Fans swarmed the court as Maryland cut down the Xfinity Center nets. Nobody knew the 2019-20 Terps would never take the floor again. But there’s some peace in knowing that this team still had that moment to celebrate. That’s the sentiment Turgeon shared on “SportsCenter” with Scott Van Pelt.
The offseason ahead
This was always going to be a tricky summer for the Terps. With Cowan graduating and Smith likely to leave for the NBA, Maryland’s 2020-21 roster certainly won’t be as stacked on paper. But Turgeon has a history of savvy springtime additions.
Wiggins, who was drawing some NBA interest before the season, seems likely to return after an inconsistent sophomore campaign; he’d team with Morsell and Ayala to lead the backcourt. Scott also returns, giving the Terps four likely starters. Maybe Ricky Lindo, Serrel Smith Jr. or Hakim Hart take a step forward. And maybe Chol Marial enters next season close to 100 percent after missing multiple years to foot injuries.
Maryland has two prospects committed in the 2020 class — combo guard Marcus Dockery and point guard Aquan Smart. Assuming Smith leaves, there will be one more open scholarship for next season, and expect Turgeon to target a grad transfer big with that spot. The first name on the board seems to be Columbia’s Patrick Tape (pronounced Ta-PAY), who visited campus in February.
Another storyline is Turgeon’s contract situation. He has three years left on his current deal, and that’s around the point when coaches seek an extension (they want to be able to tell recruits they’ll be around for their whole playing careers, among other reasons). Without any postseason results in the books, it’ll be harder for athletic director Damon Evans to justify making such an offer this summer. Maybe Maryland waits to see how next season unfolds, or maybe Evans extends Turgeon but adds a buyout that’s not in his current deal. This will be something to monitor, for sure.
Around College Park
Maryland women’s basketball had even more realistic Final Four expectations, as the Terps were a projected No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Brenda Frese’s team had a senior ace in Kaila Charles and a balanced arsenal of scorers, and while the Terps will be a force in the future, the seniors won’t have a chance to make one more run.
Two more winter sports — gymnastics and wrestling — were entering championship season. Gymnastics was in line to make its third consecutive NCAA Tournament, ranking 28th in the country with one regular-season meet remaining and the Big Ten championships slated for March 21. The wrestling team went 2-17 in dual meets this season, but redshirt senior Jahi Jones and redshirt sophomore Philip Spadafora had earned at-large bids to the NCAAs.
Men’s lacrosse, led by senior Jared Bernhardt and juniors Logan Wisnauskas and Bubba Fairman, was 5-1 and ranked No. 6 in the country. The defending champion women’s lacrosse team, meanwhile, started 1-3 and was 3-3 when the season stopped; this was a young team that figured to improve as the spring progressed. We’ll never know for sure how these teams fit into the national picture, but an awkward consolation is that Cathy Reese’s team will be reigning champions for another year.
Baseball was 10-5 with some big wins and lopsided losses, and Terps outfielder Maxwell Costes (Gilman) was on his way to a potential All-American season, posting a .439/.627/.780 slash line in just 14 games. Softball was 12-11 after a 1-7 start, already showing promising signs in Mark Montgomery’s first season. Men’s and women’s golf were just starting their spring seasons. The track and field program was days away from competing in the NCAA indoor championships, and the outdoor season was to follow.
The NCAA has already announced it intends to extend eligibility for seniors in spring sports, although there will still be logistics to work out on that front (and it doesn’t seem like winter sport athletes will earn the same dispensation). It’s hard to say what this will mean. How many seniors will come back, and how many will simply graduate and move on with their lives? What does the NCAA do with scholarship limits in light of some seniors returning?
We’ll have answers eventually. It’s fine to not know right now.
A world without sports
This still doesn’t feel real. I wrote about the new reality March 13, and we’ve had a few days of this now. The NFL has done its part, continuing with its offseason as scheduled and providing us with wonky trades and some stunning free-agency news. It looks more and more like the games will stay away for a long while, though.
Sports mean something to us, for reasons sometimes unclear and sometimes painfully obvious. They can get us through tough times and allow us to feel like part of a larger tribe. I still don’t know how we’ll collectively evolve during these next several weeks, or (more importantly) how serious this viral pandemic becomes. But I know that eventually, things will return to some sort of normal, and we’ll have sports to cheer and boo about again. And we wouldn’t want it any other way.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox