For Maryland Men’s Basketball, NCAA Tournament Bid A Relief After Trying Year

It’s just a name on the screen, really. It’s a couple seconds of air time on a TV show, a quick flash of a logo and a few words from the studio host. In a vacuum, it shouldn’t mean that much.

On college basketball’s Selection Sunday, though, those moments mean everything. They’re a validation. They’re a celebration. They’re an acknowledgment of a great season, and an opportunity to chase the sport’s ultimate prize.

Maryland men’s basketball had to wait, but the Terps are in the field for the 2021 NCAA Tournament. They’ll be a No. 10 seed in the East Region and face No. 7-seed Connecticut in the opening round Saturday, March 20.

It was a long, winding road to this point. Maryland lost its two biggest stars and several other pieces in the offseason, then started 1-5 in Big Ten play. A five-game winning streak in late February, though, put the Terps in postseason position, and even three losses in their last four games weren’t enough to put them in serious danger. At 15-13 in Division I games with four Quadrant 1 wins, Maryland did enough to go dancing.

“It was just a relieving feeling amongst us because we know how much we’ve been through this year and all the adversity we had to overcome,” senior guard Darryl Morsell said. “It was a great feeling to know we’re still alive fighting for a chance to play for something special.”

After coming a long way, the Terps had to endure a long wait.

The Terps entered the season with talented pieces but plenty of unknowns; the frontcourt always looked thin, and no returning players had ever averaged more than 10.4 points in a college season. Strong showings in early non-conference games boosted Maryland in predictive metrics, but the Terps looked overwhelmed once they started playing big-time competition. In the middle of January, they were just 1-5 in the daunting Big Ten. They fell to 4-9 (and 9-10 in Division I overall) a few weeks later.

But then came a five-game winning streak in a two-week span between Feb. 14 and 28 — against Minnesota, Nebraska twice, Rutgers at Michigan State. Even with four of the wins coming at home against teams that finished sub-.500 in the league, Maryland’s resume suddenly had the wins to back up its highlights, and the Terps were firmly in the NCAA Tournament picture. They were essentially one game away from being a lock … but then couldn’t beat Northwestern on the road or Penn State at home, leaving some room for doubt as they left for Indianapolis for the Big Ten tournament.

Head coach Mark Turgeon said after Maryland’s Big Ten tournament win against Michigan State that he believed the Terps were already in the big dance, but it’s easy to wonder how things would have shaken out had they lost that game, especially with the Spartans now in the First Four. It certainly would have made the wait on March 14 a lot more anxious.

Maryland was the third-to-last name shown on the screen during CBS’ selection show, and even for a team assumed to be in the field, that waiting game grows stressful.

“It was funny because I was sitting there, we were watching it and every time it went to commercial, I was pacing behind the players and I said, ‘I’d rather be nervous than depressed,’” Turgeon said. “Because if you’re depressed when you’re watching it when you know you’re not in, that is just an awful, awful feeling. So I can handle stress waiting for my team to be called because it’s worth it.”

It was somewhat reminiscent of 2017, when Maryland was a No. 6 seed but the second-to-last team revealed. The 2019 group, also a No. 6 seed, was in the first region revealed; the same was true in 2015 and 2016. The difference between being announced early and late can be over 30 agonizing minutes of real time, but sometimes the wait can mean a more emotional payoff.

“I think maybe because it took so long the reaction was better,” Turgeon said. “We had a couple guys in tears, they were so happy.”

Next up, a surging Connecticut team with one of the nation’s brightest stars.

The first thing you must know about this UConn squad is that it’s a lot better with James Bouknight.

Bouknight, a 6-foot-5 guard from Brooklyn, only made 14 appearances this year as he battled an elbow injury midseason, but the Huskies went 11-3 in those games compared to 4-4 without him. The sophomore averaged 19 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.9 assists when healthy, highlighted by a 40-point outburst against Creighton Dec. 20. UConn has gone 6-2 since his return in February, and he’s given them 18 points and six rebounds per game along the way. Expect Maryland to throw Morsell, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, at Bouknight early and often.

The supporting cast starts with two fellow guards. R.J. Cole, a 6-foot-1 junior, runs the point and averages 12.3 points and 4.4 assists. Tyrese Martin is a 6-foot-6 junior who chips in 10.7 points per game alongside a team-leading 7.3 rebounds.

UConn’s three primary forwards all stand 6-foot-9, which means Maryland’s small-ball lineup won’t be giving up too much size. The Huskies will likely start 230-pound senior Isaiah Whaley (8.1 points, 6.8 rebounds) alongside 240-pound freshman Adama Sanogo (7.5 points, 4.8 boards). Sanogo was a Maryland target after reclassifying to the 2020 recruiting class but ultimately chose the Huskies. Off the bench, meanwhile, 215-pound Tyler Polley (7.6 points, 2.0 rebounds) is much more of a stretch-four, attempting nearly five 3-pointers per game and knocking down 35.3 percent of his triples.

The Huskies are also a deep team, with 10 players in their regular rotation. There’s 6-foot-3 sophomore Jalen Gaffney and 6-foot-4 junior Brendan Adams — a former AAU teammate of Morsell — in the backcourt, 6-foot-6 freshman Andre Jackson on the wing and 6-foot-11 senior Josh Carlton in the post. Players were forced to step up with Bouknight out, and now second-year head coach Danny Hurley has a full arsenal of weapons with his star back in the fold.

Maryland opened as a 2.5-point underdog in this game; KenPom’s predictive ratings, which have the Huskies 16th and Terps 31st, project a 66-64 UConn win. Tipoff at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind., is slated for 7:10 p.m. on Saturday, March 20, on CBS.

The victor of this contest gets either Alabama, the bracket’s top No. 2 seed and the SEC champions, or No. 15-seed Iona, coached by none other than embattled Hall of Famer Rick Pitino. If the Terps somehow reach the Sweet 16, they’ll most likely face No. 3-seed Texas, the Big 12 tournament winner, although No. 6-seed BYU and No. 11-seed First Four teams Michigan State and UCLA will give it a run.

And if you want to dream, the East Region’s top seed is Michigan, which has quickly cultivated a contentious rivalry with Maryland this season despite beating the Terps three times, headlined by a coaches’ shouting match and Juwan Howard’s ejection in last week’s Big Ten tournament matchup.

Maryland’s veterans enter the dance with unfinished business.

Maryland was in a much different position entering Selection Sunday last year. The Terps, led by Anthony Cowan Jr. and Jalen Smith, were Big Ten regular-season co-champs and projected as a potential NCAA Tournament No. 3 seed entering championship weekend. But then the world stopped, and the tournament was canceled, and life moved on with Maryland never getting the chance to capitalize on its 2019-20 season.

This team won’t face the same expectations that one would have. But the path is there for Maryland. Morsell and junior guards Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala were part of the Terps’ 2019 tournament team, which bested Belmont before falling at the buzzer to LSU in the Round of 32. They know what the stage is like, even if it’s quite different in a pandemic. And that experience should help them guide some of their teammates that haven’t been here before.

“I’m happy for the guys that were on the team last year, that they get to experience it this year,” Turgeon said. “I’m happy for Jairus Hamilton, who’s never played in the NCAA Tournament, happy for all my freshmen that never played in one, just to be a part of it. Even though it’s unique and unusual … we can always say we were in that tournament with COVID and all the teams are here and all in one city. It’s gonna be unique and actually really cool.”

It won’t be easy. Maryland hasn’t beaten a power-conference team in the NCAA Tournament under Turgeon. It also hasn’t won at Mackey Arena since the 2014-15 season, with a loss on Christmas Day its fourth straight in the building. But this is a group that’s been doubted before. It’s a group that’s often played its best with its back against the wall. In a win-or-go-home setting like this, it’s a group that won’t go down without a fight.

“For me, it’s always something that I’ve seen for myself, seen for this team,” Morsell said. “We’ve got guys, man. Regardless of what people were saying before the season, regardless of what people were saying during the season when we were 4-9 in conference — regardless of all that, we stuck together and just trusted in the process and trusted in each other.

“I don’t even know how to explain it, but we believed, and that’s all that really mattered, and now we’re here. So now it’s time to play basketball.”

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox

Thomas Kendziora

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