Ask any of Darryl Morsell’s teammates and coaches to describe him and the word “tough” invariably emerges before long. He has carried that label throughout his entire Maryland basketball career. It shows in his physical style of play on both ends of the floor and his willingness to take challenging shots in big moments. It’s apparent in the scowl on his game face and his subtle swagger on the court.
These characteristics all seem to trace back to Baltimore, the city where Morsell first made a name for himself on the basketball court.
“Growing up in Baltimore, you really have to be just tough in life,” Morsell said. “Disregard everything basketball-related, just growing up in the city, you really have to just be tough, mentally tough and smart. I don’t know how to explain it, but you just naturally become tough and smart through experiences in life.”
This winter, the 6-foot-5, 200-pound Morsell will be a focal point for a new-look Maryland team. The Terps lost stars Anthony Cowan Jr. and Jalen Smith to graduation and the NBA Draft, respectively, and there’s been plenty of turnover among role players as well. That leaves fourth-year starter Morsell as the anchor, a role that comes with its share of challenges. But Morsell has faced plenty of those — and he’s never been one to back down.
Even growing up in a supportive and close-knit household didn’t shield Morsell from the challenges of Baltimore. It was still all too common to hear about a loved one running into legal trouble or an acquaintance dying too young. Morsell developed his game on highly competitive outdoor basketball courts, often against older players, and tough defense was the only way for him to stick around.
The Morsell family also endured tragedy when Darryl was just 8 years old. His older brother Terrell, 10, collapsed on a basketball court with Darryl and father Duane looking on. Doctors discovered Terrell had an abnormal valve in his heart. He died in the hospital two weeks later after being taken off life support. While Darryl bottled up the tragedy growing up and still doesn’t talk about it often, Terrell’s memory lives on every time the younger Morsell takes the floor.
In 2013, Morsell enrolled at Mount Saint Joseph High School and joined one of the premier basketball programs in the area. He was a freshman when fellow guards Jaylen Adams and Phil Booth were seniors — Adams starred at St. Bonaventure and is now with the Portland Trail Blazers, while Booth won two national titles at Villanova and is currently in the NBA G-League. Those two provided Morsell with an example to follow, and he eventually blossomed into a star himself.
“I think it was a case of [Booth and Adams] being role models. He could watch them physically, but also communicate with them and learn from them as well,” Mount Saint Joseph head coach Pat Clatchey said. “A couple years earlier, they were in the same boat that he was, so I think it gave him a good visual of what kind of player he could become. … Not just watching them, but also competing against them, even though they were a little bit older.”
Morsell committed to Maryland in November 2016 just ahead of his final high school season. He and future Maryland teammate Jalen Smith helped lead the Gaels to a 36-4 record and Baltimore Catholic League and Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association championships in 2016-17.
But team success wouldn’t be quite as easy to come by in Morsell’s first year at the next level — Maryland battled injuries and struggled in close games en route to a 19-13 record (8-10 Big Ten). The Terps were not selected to play in a postseason tournament.
Those injuries forced freshman Morsell into the starting lineup; he started 16 of 18 conference games and averaged 33.1 minutes per Big Ten contest. Turgeon believes that Morsell seeing more playing time than planned helped his development in the long run.
“I think that helped him grow and that may have helped us win the league championship last year because of the growth he had as a freshman,” Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon said. “Freshman year, he was asked to do a lot of things — sometimes he was guarding the point guard, sometimes he was guarding the center. But to get all those minutes just really helped him become a much better player. And a lot of times when you play, you realize, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s so much I need to work on.’ And he was able to get that out of the way his freshman year and really focus in on trying to get better.”
Morsell’s weakness as a freshman was quite evident — he was 3-for-25 from 3-point range during his rookie season. He wasn’t known as a shooter before college, but he knew he couldn’t remain a liability from distance. Morsell made 29 percent of his 3-pointers as a sophomore and improved to 33.3 percent as a junior — essentially an average Division I shooter, which even Turgeon admits seemed unlikely earlier in his career.
“I think a lot of it was just mental. And over time, mentally I gained confidence in myself, my teammates gained confidence in me,” Morsell said. “And as you grow older, you’ve seen everything. I remember when I was young, missing a lot of shots and what happened when I didn’t react the right way, so I kind of matured with that and just kept putting in hard work and believing in myself.”
Maryland bounced back in 2018-19, going 23-11 and falling just short of a Sweet 16 appearance. In 2019-20, Maryland entered the year with a top-10 ranking and remained in the national picture all season. The Terps’ season was defined by a slew of comeback victories, the most dramatic of which came at Minnesota Feb. 27. Maryland trailed by as many as 17 that night but roared back for a 74-73 victory, with Morsell draining a straight-on triple with 1.9 seconds remaining.
“That moment he had with Minnesota, I’m so glad he had that moment because he deserved that moment,” Turgeon said. “He had done everything right for me, and then to be the guy that hit the shot — it wasn’t an easy shot, but to have the confidence to step up and make it tells you a lot about Darryl.”
On March 8, Maryland clinched a share of the Big Ten regular-season title and moved to 24-7 overall for the season. But just four days later, both the conference and NCAA tournaments were canceled amid the erupting COVID-19 pandemic, and Maryland didn’t get the chance to play for a national title. With Cowan and Smith now gone, Morsell, Aaron Wiggins, Eric Ayala and Donta Scott — none of whom have had to be stars at the college level before — make up the Terps’ core entering the 2020-21 season.
It’s been both a hectic and quiet offseason. Maryland has five new scholarship players but wasn’t able to be together as a team during the summer. Morsell worked out at home, focusing mainly on strength and conditioning while participating in some one-on-one drills against a trainer. This season, the Terps will look to him as a senior leader. He’s ready for that.
“I’m just somebody that’s going to try to lead by example every day,” Morsell said. “Just doing the right things, working hard every single day. … That’s all I’m worried about right now — making sure everybody is trying to conquer the day, and I’m trying to conquer the day myself.”
It’s still unclear how the 2020-21 college basketball season will look — whether the games will have fans, how teams’ schedules shake out, the size of the NCAA Tournament field. But the plan as of now involves a season starting Nov. 25. And whenever Maryland takes the floor, Morsell will be center stage, representing Baltimore with an ever-present chip on his shoulder.
“That’s kind of how I’ve always played,” Morsell said. “Not everything is given to you. Some people don’t even have the ability to go play basketball, so why not go out there and play as hard as you can? So I’ve kind of just embraced playing hard.”
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