Hardly a news conference went by during Maryland men's basketball's 2018-19 season without head coach Mark Turgeon reminding reporters how young his team was. The Terps' eight-man rotation last season included five freshmen, two sophomores and a junior. That inexperience translated to inconsistency.
But Maryland still enjoyed a productive campaign. The Terps went 23-11 overall and 13-7 in the Big Ten. They climbed as high as No. 13 in the polls after starting the season unranked. They beat a ranked team on the road for the first time since 2008. They returned to the NCAA Tournament and came within seconds of reaching the Sweet 16.
And with almost the entire core coming back, this is the season when it's all supposed to come together.
The hype started seemingly before last year even ended. When every outlet across the country released its way-too-early rankings, Maryland was a fixture in the top 10, and that should translate to the official preseason polls. The Terps were picked to finish second in the Big Ten by league media, behind only Michigan State, which might just be the most complete team in the country.
"If we didn't think we were good and we were picked second we'd be worried, but we think we have a good team," Turgeon said at Big Ten media day Oct. 2. "Now we'll see what happens -- you've got to play the games -- but we think we have a talented team that's embracing the situation and looking forward to everything that comes with it."
The Terps did lose first-team All-Big Ten center Bruno Fernando to the NBA after two seasons, but guard Anthony Cowan Jr., who tested the draft waters himself, is back for his senior year. Cowan has been inconsistent throughout his career, but his ceiling has him on the preseason all-conference team, and he'll climb up program all-time lists all winter.
"[There were] just a lot of different things I need to change up -- well, not necessarily things I need to change up, but just get better at," Cowan said of his decision to return. "Obviously one of the biggest reasons I came back was just the team that I'm coming back to. I think the sky is the limit for this team, and I'm excited to get things going."
Sophomore forward Jalen Smith joined Cowan as an All-Big Ten preseason honoree. Smith averaged 11.7 points and 6.8 rebounds per game last season and came into his own down the stretch, shining in particular during the NCAA Tournament. After declining to enter the draft, Smith, listed at 6-foot-10 and 215 pounds, is back with a more well-rounded game and even more added muscle.
"We don't call him ‘Stix' anymore, we call him ‘Logs' because he's gotten so much bigger. Hell, he never has his shirt on anymore, he's always trying to show his upper body off," Turgeon said. "But ‘Stix' -- ‘Logs' -- has really worked hard to expand his game. He's become a much better perimeter defender. We've worked on everything, worked on his low post.
"He had a terrific freshman year. I think with Jalen we just want more consistency and that's what he wants, too, and he should be able to do that for us this year."
When asked who's made the biggest leap this offseason, Turgeon points to sophomore wing Aaron Wiggins, who nailed 41.3 percent of his 3-pointers last season. Sophomore Eric Ayala was a solid facilitator in 2018-19, while junior Darryl Morsell added flashes of scoring prowess to his consistent defense. Guard Serrel Smith Jr. and forward Ricky Lindo emerged as key rotation players off the bench last season and will be leaned on even more as sophomores.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox
Then there's the five-man freshman class, which brings plenty of potential but won't be relied on as heavily as the 2018 recruits were as freshmen. Forward/center Makhi Mitchell and swingman Donta Scott could be immediate impact players -- Mitchell might even start -- while Makhel Mitchell (Makhi's twin brother) and sharpshooter Hakim Hart have a chance to carve out roles as well.
Among the newcomers, the wild card is 7-foot-2 center Chol Marial, formerly one of the top prospects in the country. Injuries have hindered Marial for years, and he'll miss the first part of this season after undergoing surgery to repair stress fractures in both legs. Maryland knew his injury history when recruiting him and can likely manage without him. If he's healthy, though, the Terps' ceiling might be one level higher.
While Maryland won't have the 6-foot-10, 250-pound Fernando in the middle, this team might be more physically imposing across the board than last year's squad. Smith and Lindo have each added 30-plus pounds of muscle since last summer, Turgeon said, and Ayala has "totally changed his body" as well. Scott and the Mitchell twins should have the frames to compete physically in a challenging Big Ten.
"We added some toughness to our team," Turgeon said. "Last year was amazing, what our group did with five freshmen in the top eight. We weren't very physical, but we figured out how to win just enough games to make the tournament and win a game. But this year our sophomores are bigger and our incoming freshmen are strong and athletic."
It's a well-rounded roster on paper. But basketball games are played on hardwood. And until the results come, it's always fair to be skeptical.
This is Turgeon's ninth season at Maryland. In his first eight, Maryland made four NCAA Tournaments. The Terps missed in his first three seasons, then made straight three dances, fell short in 2018 and returned last season. The Terps have reached the second weekend just once, a Sweet 16 appearance in 2016. Perhaps more troubling, they've gone one-and-done in three straight Big Ten tournaments. It's probably too extreme to call this a make-or-break year for Turgeon, whose contract runs through 2023. If he can't deliver something fans haven't seen from him, though, it'll be a tense offseason.
Still, this team has several things working in its favor. Turgeon has the option to go at least nine or 10 players deep every night, something he simply hasn't been able to do during his time at Maryland. It's also the first time he's had a core of players stick together for multiple seasons, providing the continuity that allows talented teams to become complete. And the team chemistry that was on display last season doesn't seem to be going anywhere.
"Our guys only know one way and that's to work hard," Turgeon said. "Our culture is terrific right now. Our guys are in the gym early, in the gym late, in the gym with me during the day. They're embracing it. We're all embracing it. We want more, and we want to be great."
Greatness won't come right away. Maryland has plenty of hurdles to overcome between now and March, from a Thanksgiving weekend tournament in Orlando, Fla., to a road trip to Seton Hall to a 20-game Big Ten slate featuring two matchups with the league-favorite Spartans. But if the stars align, Maryland just might be in Atlanta, the site of the program's lone national championship, for the 2020 Final Four.
"[Making the Final Four is] most definitely a goal of ours, but our main focus is just to get better every day," Morsell said. "We're focused on [ourselves] as a team and we're locked in, just improving every day and getting prepared for the season."
Photo Credits: Kenya Allen/PressBox
Issue 258: October 2019
Originally published Oct. 15, 2019