As Maryland men’s basketball entered the 2021 offseason, the Terps had plenty of questions to answer. Which players would stay and which would leave? Who could the staff bring in via the transfer portal? And above all, what did head coach Mark Turgeon’s future with the program look like?
The answers are coming at rapid speed now. Maryland is reportedly moving toward an extension with Turgeon — the school has still not announced it — then landed a pair of high-profile transfers less than an hour apart on Saturday, April 3. Suddenly, the Terps’ prospects for the 2021-22 season look brighter than ever.
Let’s run down the events of the last 24 hours and try to make sense of them.
Maryland last extended Turgeon’s contract in 2016, with his active deal running through 2023. So he had two years left after this past season. But at that point in the contract, recruiting becomes difficult as questions arise about a university’s commitment to a coach.
Thus, Maryland was left with an awkward decision — to extend a coach whose results have often underwhelmed, or to fire a coach who’s brought Maryland to five of six NCAA Tournaments (six of seven if you want to count the canceled 2020 event).
This conundrum has become a contentious topic among Maryland fans, with many wanting the Terps to go in a new direction. It’s unclear the extent to which Turgeon wanted to or was encouraged to seek another job; he was most heavily rumored as a candidate at Oklahoma.
Maryland, had it fired Turgeon, would have owed him the full $6 million he’d have made in his last two seasons. That number isn’t obscene in big-time college sports, but the Terps’ athletic department announced April 2 a $40 million loss in revenue during the pandemic, and high-level boosters have spent big money on facilities upgrades in recent years.
Ultimately, then, the extension made the most sense. With Maryland still not formally announcing a deal — Jon Rothstein was first to publicly report the sides were finalizing an agreement — the terms are not yet public knowledge.
The pressure to win remains, especially if Turgeon’s buyout drops after next season. But a pair of additions April 3 brought plenty of excitement.
The Big Man
The first domino on April 3 fell when Qudus Wahab, the 6-foot-11 transfer center from Georgetown, announced his commitment to the Terps.
Wahab, a Nigieria native who was a three-star prospect at Flint Hill Academy in Oakton, Va., joined the Hoyas in 2019. He emerged as a star in 2020-21, averaging 12.7 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. Wahab led Georgetown on a shocking run through the Big East tournament, as the No. 8-seed Hoyas won four games in as many days at Madison Square Garden to clinch an NCAA Tournament berth. Georgetown fell to Colorado in the opening round of the big dance, but Wahab set career highs with 20 points and 12 rebounds in that game.
His decision to transfer from Georgetown was a surprise, but he landed not far away in College Park, Md. Wahab fills Maryland’s most glaring need by far, as the Terps were woefully undersized in a daunting Big Ten all season. With Jalen Smith turning pro, other frontcourt options transferring and 7-foot-2 center Chol Marial not being where Maryland needed him to be, Turgeon turned to a primary lineup with four guards around Donta Scott, a natural forward masquerading as a 6-foot-7 center.
Maryland already had some frontcourt reinforcements on the way. Julian Reese, a 6-foot-9 Baltimore native and the younger brother of women’s basketball phenom Angel Reese, is a four-star commit in the 2021 class. Scott returns, as does Jairus Hamilton; those two showed they can hold down the center position at times. But with Wahab on board, the Terps have someone to match up with the talented bigs across the conference. An addition like this was a necessity, and after a 2020 portal season full of whiffs, Maryland got the job done this time.
The Point Guard
Don’t be fooled by Fatts Russell’s name; he’s only 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds. (His first name is Daron, but his mother gave him the nickname because he was a chubby baby and it’s stuck ever since.) Russell starred for four seasons at Rhode Island, and now he’ll spend his extra year of eligibility in College Park.
After coming off the bench as a rookie in 2017-18 when the Rams reached the NCAA Tournament, Russell started 83 games during the last three seasons. He averaged 14.2 points as a sophomore, 18.8 as a junior and 14.7 as a senior, also chipping in 4.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game last season.
Maryland never found a true replacement for Anthony Cowan Jr. in the 2020 offseason and essentially went with a committee approach last year. Eric Ayala filled the role early, but Hakim Hart shouldered more point guard duties as the season progressed. Aaron Wiggins and Darryl Morsell ran the offense at times. Freshman Aquan Smart appeared sporadically; fellow rookie Marcus Dockery contributed even less. The addition of Russell should allow Hart and Ayala to move back off the ball and help other players settle into more comfortable roles.
Russell also reunites with Scott, his former teammate at Imhotep Charter High School in Philadelphia.
Maryland, at this moment, has no scholarships open. Three outgoing seniors and the March 31 transfer of Marial are offset by these two transfers and the two freshmen enrolling in the summer. Reese and wing Ike Cornish complete the 2021 recruiting class that also includes midseason enrollee James Graham III.
The NCAA rule change allowing a blanket extra year of eligibility adds some complication to the offseason. Morsell and Galin Smith, for instance, can return to Maryland next season and won’t count against the scholarship limit (although Russell, a transfer, does count). Neither player has announced a decision yet, but trends from around the country suggest their returns are unlikely.
Perhaps more pressing, then, are the decisions of Wiggins and Ayala, both of whom are expected to at least test the NBA Draft waters. Neither is widely expected to be drafted, although Wiggins has a much better chance. Both players, though, are already 22 years old, and it’s common for players in their position to move on and start their pro career, whatever that looks like. (Melo Trimble and Robert Carter Jr. took similar paths a few years back.) Of course, there’s also a decent chance Maryland gets one or both of these players back, which would make the lineup that much more exciting.
Another spot or two could also open via transfer. Smart’s name has been rumored but not officially confirmed. Perhaps Dockery or Swiss forward Arnaud Revaz seeks a quicker path to playing time elsewhere. Perhaps someone else pulls off a surprise.
Whatever the case, Maryland knows a lot more now than it did just yesterday. And the outlook is more exciting right now than it’s been since the 2019-20 season. While the next game isn’t for another seven months, there’s reason for celebration in College Park.
Photo Credit: 2021 NCAA Photos