March 2020 was supposed to be memorable for Maryland.
The Terrapins beat Michigan 83-70 at home on the final Sunday of the regular season to secure a share of the Big Ten’s regular season title. They were heading to Chicago with high hopes of surpassing previous conference tournament showings (three straight “one-and-dones”) and receiving a likely-top four seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Banishing the ghosts of March’s past and setting new standards while giving Anthony Cowan Jr. and Jalen Smith the proper sendoff seemed imminent.
Unfortunately, just like the rest of college basketball, the March rug was pulled out from under the Terps. COVID-19 wiped out the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments. Anthony Cowan graduated and Jalen Smith declared for the NBA Draft.
Instead of looking back to a memorable March, Head Men’s Basketball Coach Mark Turgeon looks to put a new unit together against the backdrop of a suddenly spiking pandemic.
“Well, I’m comfortable that we’re doing everything we can to make it work.” Turgeon said. “We test six days a week; that doesn’t mean we can’t catch it. We know it’s going to be a part of our game this year.”
But the virtual practices and social distancing landscape hasn’t made figuring out a roster, which has five freshmen plus three transfers, much easier.
“I don’t know who our best players are and all that stuff,” Turgeon said. “We don’t have exhibition games; it’s really hard to scrimmage even with depth as far as referees and everything and COVID tests.”
For the first time since 2015, Turgeon won’t start his season with Cowan on the floor. The Bowie, Maryland, native departed as the school’s seventh all-time scorer with 1,881 career points while his 584 assists ranks fifth best in program history.
The St. John’s Catholic High School graduate started all 130 games he played as a Terp (second most behind Steve Blake).
“You really don’t replace Anthony: his toughness, his speed. The bigger moment, the better he was. Bringing it every day to practice,” Turgeon said. “Playing well in almost every game; not always shooting the ball well in every game but always bringing it.”
While some programs plug in a top-flight recruit, the Terps plan to spread the responsibility around.
“It won’t be one guy that does it. Eric Ayala is going to be Eric Ayala,” Turgeon said. “Eric can really score the ball, Eric’s a really good passer, Eric’s got great size.”
Ayala started 20 games as a sophomore and his 77 assists were the second-most on the team behind Cowan. The 6-foot-5 guard also made the third-most-3-pointers on the team last winter; he’ll provide a decent start at the point guard position for Maryland this year.
“Then we’ve got (Marcus) Dockery and Aquan Smart who are probably closer to Anthony because they’re fast and competitive,” Turgeon said. Dockery, from Washington, D.C., attended Brewster Academy while Smart, an Evanston, Illinois, native, brings a skill-set that demands minutes.
“Quan is really a fast, elite-level athlete. He’ll hopefully do a few of the things Anthony did; I think he can be an elite defender for us,” Turgeon said. “He’s fast- he can cover ground quickly; there’s guys that are fast and guys who aren’t fast in short space. He’s fast in both spaces.”
A familiar face mans the other starting guard position in the form of last year’s Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year Aaron Wiggins.
“I think he’s ready for it; he played starter minutes last year. Maybe didn’t have starter mentality when it came to scoring,” Turgeon said. “Kind of known as a shooter coming out of high school, his ballhandling, his passing, and his decision making have come so far. His foot speed’s gotten better, so defensively, he’s become a lot better player.”
The other significant loss from last year’s team will be a little tougher to mask. Smith averaged a double-double en route to being named First Team All-Big Ten and Third Team All-American. Enter Chol Marial, a 7-foot-2 sophomore from South Sudan who was limited to just 68 minutes last winter after recovering from hairline fracture surgeries to both of his legs.
“He’s starting to look like the Chol that I remember coming out of high school a few years ago,” Turgeon said. “There’s a lot of things that we didn’t know he could do because he just wasn’t able to do it, and I think he’s been able to do a little more-he’s moving better.”
The frontcourt gets a boost in the form of two transfers: Galin Smith started 20 games over three seasons at Alabama while Jairus Hamilton made 18 starts in two years at Boston College.
“Galin has a great feel: especially where to go offensively. His maturity will help us,” Turgeon said. “Jairus Hamilton averaged double figures in the ACC last year; he’s a good player.”
Meanwhile, sophomore Donta Scott returns after he made 21 starts last year and averaged 22 minutes per game last winter.
Rounding out the starting five is perhaps the most important player in Maryland’s program: Darryl Morsell. The senior found a way into Turgeon’s rotation from the start of his freshman year when he started 21 games; he’s averaged eight points per game in each of his three seasons with the Terps and posted career highs in rebounds, assists and steals last winter.
“He came in as a defender and a tough guy, and now he’s a great defender/great team player/great rebounder. He’s also really good with the basketball now, not turning the ball over,” Turgeon said. “You have to respect his jump shot, he’s continued to work, and he’s really added a great mid-range game.”
The returning senior with the most experience also will provide the necessary guidance to a roster sprinkled with eight newcomers.
“Darryl Morsell’s probably grown as a leader more than any player I’ve ever had,” Turgeon said. “It’s just a natural thing for him. He’s really good at making practice real competitive and kind of being a jerk about it. And he knows down deep that all the players know that he really truly cares about them.”
The season reportedly tips off on Nov. 25 when Old Dominion comes to College Park. The non-conference season’s highlight is a trip to Clemson for the Big Ten-ACC Challenge on Dec. 9.
The Big Ten looks to be just as tough to negotiate through this winter with three teams in the Associated Press Preseason Top Ten and seven overall in the Top 25, including Rutgers. Yes, the Scarlet Knights actually have expectations this season instead of just being a tough road game (let the record show that the RAC is a tough place to play).
More college basketball news