Maryland men’s basketball last took the floor March 8 — eight and a half months that feel like a lifetime ago. On that day, the Terps cruised past Michigan on Anthony Cowan Jr.’s senior day to clinch a share of the Big Ten regular-season title. They celebrated a championship and cut down nets as thousands slowly joined them on the Xfinity Center court.
At the time, it wasn’t a farewell. The Terps had larger plans. The Big Ten tournament, and the chance at an outright conference crown, was on tap the following week. Then would come the NCAA Tournament, where seasons are defined and legacies are cemented, for better or worse. But then came the eruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a postseason canceled entirely, and a lifetime of wondering what that team could have done with the opportunity that never came.
Now it’s November, with a new season set to begin. And Maryland will have to carry on without the catalysts of that championship run. Cowan is out of eligibility, and All-American big man Jalen Smith is now a Phoenix Suns lottery pick. The Terps saw three rotational players transfer in the spring after two left midseason. They missed plenty of their top targets to replace all that lost production, and the players they’ve added are still relative unknowns.
Maryland didn’t receive a single AP top-25 preseason vote after spending all of last season ranked. The Terps are 51st in Ken Pomeroy’s predictive metric after never falling below 17th a year ago. They’re one of the few teams expected to go backwards in a conference that’s only getting stronger — seven Big Ten teams begin the season ranked, and 10 are in KenPom’s preseason top 30, which leaves Maryland in 11th.
The Terps still have plenty of pieces, though. Four of last season’s top six — senior Darryl Morsell, juniors Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala and sophomore Donta Scott — return, and transfer forward Jairus Hamilton brings starting experience from Boston College. There’s optimism that Maryland could run as many as 10 deep this year. Head coach Mark Turgeon, entering his 10th season with the Terps, acknowledges they probably won’t be able to lean on one player like they have in the past.
“I think you’ll see a really well-balanced basketball team this year,” Turgeon said at Maryland’s virtual media day Nov. 10. “That’s the way it’s been looking in practice every day. Every day there’s a different kid or two that steps up and does a nice job. So that’s a good feeling as a coach when you have balance, and I think that’ll help us be successful.”
This whole season exists in a cloud of uncertainty. The coronavirus pandemic is still going strong; Maryland shut down briefly due to multiple positive tests this summer, but the football program has shown how quickly the virus can make the games obsolete. College basketball as a whole has already seen a slew of early-season cancellations, and while a bubble NCAA Tournament is in the plans, it’s not entirely certain if and when the sport even gets there.
For now, though, Maryland has 27 games on its schedule, starting with three contests this week. Here’s your primer on the new-look Terps and the journey that awaits them.
The rotation is full of question marks, but there’s upside here.
A preliminary look at the lineup and depth chart:
• PG: Eric Ayala, Aquan Smart
• SG: Darryl Morsell, Marcus Dockery
• SF: Aaron Wiggins, Hakim Hart
• PF: Donta Scott, Jairus Hamilton
• C: Chol Marial, Galin Smith
(Also on the roster: Swiss freshman forward Arnaud Revaz, senior guard Reese Mona and walk-on guards Jade Brahmbhatt, Aidan McCool and Connor Odom.)
The lack of established star power is noticeable — there’s only one double-digit scoring season in any of these players’ careers, with Wiggins averaging 10.4 points per game last year. On the flip side, though, there’s plenty of starting experience on the roster. Morsell has made 81 career starts in his first three seasons, while Ayala has 53 under his belt through two years. Scott made 21 starts as a freshman and Hamilton had 28 in two seasons at Boston College.
It’s possible any of these five players becomes a breakout star, with Wiggins perhaps the most likely candidate. But Maryland can still win games with quality offensive balance, which this core can provide. It’s a strong and versatile defensive group as well, which should keep the Terps in games where the offense isn’t clicking.
Marial, though, is the X-factor that could swing this season. He’s a 7-foot-2 sophomore who’s battled lower-body injuries since early in high school; after finally undergoing surgery last fall to repair stress fractures in both legs, he returned to the floor and made scattered appearances for the Terps in 2019-20. All indications from this offseason suggest he’s at or near 100 percent, and his upside is impossible to ignore.
“Where I’m at right now, I didn’t expect to be here because [the surgery] was really a big one for me — I had never had surgery before,” Marial said. “So to be here right now, I’m really grateful. I’m thankful to God.”
If Marial is healthy and productive, the Terps’ ceiling goes up a level. If he’s not, then the onus will fall on Galin Smith — a 6-foot-9 Alabama grad transfer who’s never averaged more than 13.5 minutes per game — to lock down the center position. If he can’t do that, then Turgeon’s next best option is likely Hamilton or Scott in a small-ball lineup. Revaz, despite standing 6-foot-10, weighs just 215 pounds and appears to be more of a long-term project.
The Terps’ guard depth looks more robust entering the season. Hart played his way into the rotation over Serrel Smith Jr. last season, while Smart and Dockery appear ready for at least rotational action. Turgeon has spoken especially highly of Smart, who was a unanimous Illinois all-state selection as a high school senior, and CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein has sources hyping up Hart. Mona, now on scholarship, and a new trio of walk-ons are on the periphery.
“Melo [Trimble] left, we figured it out. And now Anthony’s left, we’ve got to figure it out again,” Turgeon said. “I have confidence in our backcourt that we’ve got really good players that are going to do a great job for us.”
The schedule starts softly but ramps up in a hurry.
Maryland will play only seven nonconference games this year, down from 11 in a full season. And it seems like it’s the higher-profile games getting left out — Seton Hall is off the schedule after a home-and-home the last two seasons, and the Terps won’t spend Thanksgiving weekend playing postseason-quality teams. Other than the ACC/Big Ten Challenge matchup with Clemson Dec. 9, Maryland plays no nonconference opponents in KenPom’s preseason top 100.
The Terps open the season with five home games against mid-major foes. They’ll be hefty favorites in all these games, which have time and TV information already released. Maryland hopes this opening slate will provide the chance to shake off some rust and add rotational clarity.
• Wednesday, Nov. 25 vs. Old Dominion (KP No. 101), 2 p.m. ET, BTN+
• Friday, Nov. 27 vs. Navy (KP 193), 3 p.m., BTN
• Sunday, Nov. 29 vs. Mount St. Mary’s (KP 260), 2 p.m., BTN
• Tuesday, Dec. 1 vs. Monmouth (KP 182), 7 p.m., BTN
• Friday, Dec. 4 vs. George Mason (KP 110), 3 p.m., BTN
And then the tide turns. Maryland’s first road trip is to Clemson, which last made the NCAA Tournament in 2018 and returns a strong core. The 20-game Big Ten schedule begins with preseason-ranked Rutgers (!!!) at home, and after a post-finals date with La Salle, the gauntlet truly begins on Christmas Day (also a strange 2020 thing).
• Wednesday, Dec. 9 at Clemson (KP 40)
• Monday, Dec. 14 vs. Rutgers (AP No. 24, KP 27)
• Tuesday, Dec. 22 vs. La Salle (KP 150)
• Friday, Dec. 25 at Purdue (KP 25)
• Monday, Dec. 28 at Wisconsin (AP 7, KP 7)
• Thursday, Dec. 31 vs. Michigan (AP 25, KP 15)
It only gets tougher after the calendar turns to 2021; Maryland’s first three games of the new year might be its toughest three-game stretch of the season. The Terps’ lone matchups with Iowa and Illinois, both preseason top-10 teams, come three days apart. Wisconsin, the league’s highest-ranked squad on KenPom, looms again at the end of the month.
• Monday, Jan. 4 at Indiana (KP 26)
• Thursday, Jan. 7 vs. Iowa (AP 5, KP 13)
• Sunday, Jan. 10 at Illinois (AP 8, 17)
• Saturday, Jan. 16 vs. Nebraska (KP 117)
• Tuesday, Jan. 19 at Michigan
• Saturday, Jan. 23 at Minnesota (KP 30)
• Saturday, Jan. 30 vs. Wisconsin
Things look a little less daunting from there, as five of Maryland’s last nine games are at home and three of the last four road games are against the Big Ten’s bottom-three KenPom teams — Penn State, Northwestern and Nebraska. But none of these opponents are clear pushovers.
• Tuesday, Feb. 2 vs. Purdue
• Fri/Sat, Feb. 5/6 at Penn State (KP 64)
• Mon/Tue, Feb. 8/9 vs. Ohio State (AP 23, KP 10)
• Sunday, Feb. 14 vs. Minnesota
• Wednesday, Feb. 17 at Nebraska
• Sunday, Feb. 21 at Rutgers
• Sunday, Feb. 28 vs. Michigan State (AP 11, KP 11)
• Wednesday, March 3 at Northwestern (KP 70)
• Sunday, March 7 vs. Penn State
Based on preseason projections, Maryland actually has a favorable draw for its conference schedule. The Terps play just five games against the consensus top four of Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan State. Just one of these games takes place after January. Maryland also plays Ohio State (No. 10 on KenPom) just once at home.
It’s a loaded Big Ten, and Maryland will need to step up to have a chance.
This league has leveled up significantly in the last few years — after receiving just four NCAA Tournament bids in 2018, the conference improved to eight entrants in 2019 and was projected to send as many as 11 teams to the dance in 2020. And assuming a 68-team tournament happens this year, at least nine looks possible once again.
It’s unclear what to expect from Maryland in 2020-21; we probably won’t have a real sense of what this team is until January. The lack of established star power on board, combined with the volume of returning talent across the league, sets the Terps’ floor as low as it’s been in years. But they still have a high ceiling, and even with Xfinity Center closed to fans until further notice, it’ll be worth watching to see if they can reach it.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics