As the 2020-21 college basketball season reaches its fever pitch, Maryland is finding its form and sneaking up the Big Ten standings. The Terps have won four straight games, surging from 4-9 to 8-9 in the nation’s toughest conference. They’ve moved to 14-10 overall (13-10 in Division I) and well onto the right side of the projected NCAA Tournament bubble.
That Maryland would even be in the postseason conversation was far from a guarantee. The Terps, who won a share of the conference regular-season title in 2019-20, lost their two biggest stars and much more after the coronavirus pandemic wiped out the 2020 Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. Point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. was out of eligibility. Forward/center Jalen Smith was off to the NBA. And three backups entered the transfer portal, forcing head coach Mark Turgeon and his staff to scramble as Maryland filled out its roster.
The Terps had question marks all over the roster entering 2020-21; it probably didn’t help that they weren’t able to spend nearly as much time together in the summer and fall as usual. As it turns out, many of the answers to those questions haven’t been positive. But Turgeon’s team is finding a way.
Maryland is getting by with a thin, undersized rotation.
The Terps have become almost exclusively reliant on their top seven players. They brought back four of their top six from last season, albeit Nos. 3-6, and all four returners have adapted well to larger roles. Eric Ayala has been the most consistent offensive threat, while Aaron Wiggins and Donta Scott have had hot and cold stretches (Wiggins has been Maryland’s best player during its winning streak). Darryl Morsell’s offense has come and gone, but his defensive play and leadership are the backbone of the team right now.
Turgeon has shown of late that he only really trusts three other players in high-leverage minutes. Hakim Hart has taken on more point guard duties and become the fifth regular starter in an ultra-small lineup. Transfer forwards Jairus Hamilton and Galin Smith have both been tasked with playing bigger than their size and matching up with a slew of star Big Ten centers, and they’ve been spotty as offensive contributors. Smith notched 10 points against Minnesota Feb. 14 and Hamilton played two strong games against Nebraska, but the duo combined for four points in Maryland’s most recent game against Rutgers.
Appearances from anyone else have become scattered and short. Freshman guard Aquan Smart functioned as the eighth man earlier in the season, but senior Reese Mona, a former walk-on, has taken most of those minutes lately. Center Chol Marial showed flashes but still hasn’t caught up to the speed of the Big Ten game as he recovers from a long history of injuries. Freshman guard Marcus Dockery and forward Arnaud Revaz were never really in the rotation to begin with, and midseason enrollee James Graham III hasn’t vaulted into it either.
Remarkably, Maryland is still making this thinned-out rotation work. The small-ball lineups are spacing the floor well on offense, and the Terps are using their length and quickness to compensate for size disadvantages on defense. If this continues to be a winning formula, the biggest worry left is whether those players logging high minute counts will ultimately run out of gas in the postseason.
What happened to the players who left via transfer?
The Terps were hit hard by attrition both during and after the 2019-20 season. Twin centers Makhi and Makhel Mitchell, who committed to Maryland two years before enrolling, lasted less than two months before entering the transfer portal in December 2019. The Terps managed well without them, as Smith shifted to center full-time and became an all-conference selection, but their absence became much more notable with Smith declaring for the NBA draft.
It didn’t help that two more forwards, Joshua Tomaic and Ricky Lindo, also entered the portal in the spring. Tomaic, Lindo and Serrel Smith Jr. all left in search of more substantial roles elsewhere.
For the most part, each player found what he was looking for.
The Mitchell twins transferred to Rhode Island; Makhel, who was actually the lower-rated recruit of the two, is averaging 9.7 points and 5.8 rebounds in 22.8 minutes per game, while Makhi has only made seven appearances and averaged 16.1 minutes, 5.9 points and 4.9 boards for the Rams.
Tomaic has been a productive rotation piece for San Diego State, which is a projected No. 9 seed in the Bracket Matrix. He’s contributing five points and 3.5 rebounds in 16 minutes per game off the bench, all career highs by a considerable margin.
Smith landed at East Tennessee State, which went 30-4 in 2019-20 but lost head coach Steve Forbes to Wake Forest and is 12-10 in a transition year under Jason Shay. The now-junior guard has started 16 of 22 games and averaged 7.7 points, 2.5 boards and 1.1 assists in 24.6 minutes per contest.
Lindo enrolled at George Washington but did not apply for immediate eligibility; he made his season debut Jan. 13 after the NCAA granted a blanket waiver for all transfers this season. The junior has made just four appearances for the Colonials, but he’s been solid — 12.3 points, 11.0 rebounds and 2.5 steals per game with three double-doubles. (George Washington did not play between Jan. 17 and Feb. 21.)
It’s likely that any of these players would have at least been part of Maryland’s rotation had they stayed in College Park this season, but in each case, it’s doubtful their roles would be larger with the Terps than with their new upper-mid-major teams. College basketball transfers have spiked significantly in recent years, and it’s hard to blame players for chasing opportunities when it looks like they might not come at their current school. But the constant turnover sometimes leaves teams with several holes to plug.
The missed targets in free agency have had a wide range of success this season.
Before Hamilton and Smith signed with the Terps, Turgeon’s staff took swings at several high-profile graduate transfers but ultimately came up empty each time. Maryland was the reported runner-up for Radford’s Carlik Jones, who wound up at Louisville. The Terps were in the top three for 6-foot-10 forward Jordan Bruner, who transferred from Yale to Alabama, and the top four for Harvard point guard Bryce Aiken, who picked Seton Hall. All three decisions came between April 5 and 10.
Given what we know now, only Jones would have dramatically transformed the outlook of this team. He’s an ACC Player of the Year candidate, averaging 17.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.5 assists as he carries Louisville to a likely NCAA Tournament berth. Bruner has recorded 7.8 points and 5.4 rebounds and started in all 15 of his appearances for an Alabama team currently leading the SEC and ranked No. 6 in the country. Aiken, meanwhile, has been severely hampered by injuries, logging just 13.9 minutes and 5.5 points per game in 13 appearances at Seton Hall.
As the spring progressed, Maryland courted several other players but only closed the deal with Smith, who joined Hamilton in the Terps’ revamped frontcourt. Perhaps BYU’s Matt Haarms (11.2 points, 4.3 rebounds) or Texas Tech’s Marcus Santos Silva (8.4 points, 6.3 rebounds) would have become fixtures in the frontcourt. Maybe Cincinnati’s David DeJulius (10.3 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4.5 assists) or Minnesota’s Both Gach (7.3 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.1 assists) would provide further backcourt depth.
Maryland, though, is long past dwelling on what could have been. And the group in place has rallied admirably.
Those still in the building have put the Terps in NCAA Tournament position.
Pretty much every projected bracket released this week has Maryland in the field of 68; the Terps are a No. 10 seed in the composite bracket matrix after piling four straight wins onto a resume that already had its high points. Now, after a Big Ten schedule that included 10 ranked foes in its first 13 games, Maryland closes with three games against opponents at the bottom of the league standings — vs. Michigan State on Sunday, Feb. 28, then at Northwestern on March 2 and vs. Penn State on March 7.
The Terps are likely in a lofty enough position for one loss in this stretch to not be costly, although any defeat would be the worst on Maryland’s resume. Based on current NET rankings, all three games will be Quadrant 2 opportunities for the Terps, who are 8-0 outside the first quadrant (and 5-10 in Quadrant 1). Two losses, though, would presumably drop the Terps right back to the thick of the bubble, needing some Big Ten tournament success to ensure their spot in the dance.
Anything can happen, but Maryland has shown notable improvement on both ends of the floor, and Wiggins (18.0 points, 7.2 rebounds in the last five games) and Ayala (16.7 points across the last six) are finding good form at the same time. Considering where this team looked to be heading, there’s a lot to like right now.
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