Every men’s basketball team has different goals. For some it’s getting to the NCAA Tournament. For others, like Maryland, it’s getting to the second weekend and beyond.
That’s the mindset of head coach Mark Turgeon as he enters his 11th season at the school. “It’s obviously the next step. (Athletic director Damon Evans) and I talk about it all the time,” Turgeon said.
“We know where we are as a program. I think this team has a chance to do that because we’re going to be a little bit deeper, a little more experienced — we have really good guards.”
The Terps are 6-5 in the NCAA Tournament with five trips (not counting the COVID-19 season where the Big Ten co-champs would have made the tournament) in his tenure, but they’ve yet to reach the second weekend (their Sweet Sixteen loss in 2016 saw the Terrapins tumble on a Thursday night). Can this team be the one that makes it happen?
This year’s edition tries to build off of last winter’s team that was in danger of missing the tournament before winning five straight in February.
While senior Eric Ayala came back after testing the NBA waters, Aaron Wiggins remained in the draft and turned pro last spring. Ayala (15 points, four rebounds and three assists per game last season) returns to campus six points shy of 1,000 for his career to the delight of his coach.
“I think it’s the best thing for him,” Turgeon said. “I just wish more kids would understand that college is special and stick around longer. I’m glad Eric did, and I imagine he’s going to have a great year.”
Ayala will be joined by junior forward Donta Scott who, after having to play underneath last year, will be in a more natural spot for the 6-foot-8 sharpshooter.
“He’s one of the elite shooters in the Big Ten — he shot 45% from three last year,” Turgeon said. “He can get hot and he can score in a variety of ways, he can back guys down, score off the dribble, shoot threes, we can post him up some.”
Scott moving outside is a byproduct of the offseason solidifying of the center position thanks to incoming freshman Julian Reese from Baltimore and transfer Qudus Wahab from Georgetown (the Nigerian native averaged 13 points and eight rebounds for the Big East Tournament champs last season).
“You look at our teams, when we’ve been successful, we’ve had a lot of low-post scoring, Q’s really good down there,” Turgeon said. “We’d go on droughts last year because we had to rely on a jump-shot or beat someone off the dribble. Physically, we’re much more equipped to stay fresh and compete at the highest level in the Big Ten.”
New Assistant Coach Danny Manning (National Player of the Year in 1988 with National Champion Kansas) likes the combination of Wahab and Reese in the pivot.
“One’s left-handed and one’s right-handed, so we get a chance to take away strengths and do different things based upon the individual that they’re playing up against,” Manning said. “We have a chance to wear teams down at that center spot with those two rotating in and other guys as well.”
Wahab and Reese are just two of the eight players new to this year’s program. Directing the offense will be Rhode Island transfer Fatts Russell, who as a three-year starter with the Rams averaged 15 points with four assists per game.
“One of the things we talked about when we recruited him is that he doesn’t have to score as much here,” Turgeon said. “Now, he’ll have nights where he scores, but make guys around him better. He’s very good at that. He’s extremely fast.”
The senior from Philadelphia likes the weapons at his disposal.
“Eric’s a big-time scorer, Donta’s a big time scorer,” Watts said. “It makes my job easier knowing that if I get in the lane and they help, then Eric or Donta are right there to make the open shot.”
Anytime you bring eight new players into any situation, there’s always a question of how things will work, because like any good recipe, there’s always the chance that the whole won’t equal the sum of its parts. That’s not the case this year.
“The guys really like each other — they really care about each other. That’s a good sign,” the 56-year-old Turgeon said. “I’m getting a little bit older and I’ve had a lot of teams. So, when you have a team that acts the way this team acts, it gives you a chance to be good.”
They will have the chance to play in front of their fans this winter after a season of social distancing that turned one of the more boisterous arenas in the Big Ten uncomfortably quiet.
“I think we had the best home record in the Big Ten the last six years or whatever, (and) there’s a reason … because our fan base and our students are very important,” Turgeon said.
“This place is special — this building is special. When it’s a big game and our fans know we need it, this is a top four or five building in the country. And that’s saying a lot, because there are a lot of really good buildings.”
There will be plenty of big games in the building this winter, as Maryland is one of five Big Ten schools beginning the year ranked in the Preseason Top 25.
Four others are also receiving votes. And while one knows the 20-game conference season will take the most out of this team built with maturing upperclassmen, impressive recruits and key transfers, as is the case with most programs at Maryland’s level, there’s always an eye on March.
“At some point, I’m going to be blessed enough to make a run in the NCAA Tournament,” Turgeon said. “We’ve been really consistent, and I know that year’s coming … hopefully, that’s this year.”