But then the staff found the right formula, faster than coach Mark Turgeon expected. This team, which started the Big Ten with just four wins in 13 games, was never expected to battle for a top spot in the conference. But the Terps figured out how to play to give themselves a chance to win most nights.
“Finally we said, ‘All right, we’re going with this group,” said Turgeon. “Every season is different. That makes it great. The challenge is to find out and do the best for this team.”
The Terps defended themselves against their opponents. Although it became clear that Maryland was not going to win games with offensive firepower, five skilled shooters often worked together in smaller lineups. Persistence followed, albeit against teams in the bottom half of the Big Ten. A winning streak of five games came together. The hopes for the postseason have strengthened. But then Maryland regressed.
Wednesday’s deflating 60-55 loss at Northwestern shouldn’t cause immediate concern about the Terps’ place in the NCAA tournament, but it will put some pressure on Sunday’s regular season finale against Penn State – possibly the final game at the Xfinity Center for seniors place Darryl Morsell, Galin Smith and Reese Mona, who are technically allowed to return for another season with the waiver of the NCAA eligibility. In addition to the Seniors Day celebrations, which are played in the arena without fans, Turgeon and his players must also prove that a disappointing outing was an anomaly and the mistakes won’t follow them into the postseason.
In Northwestern, Maryland had 15 sales. Turgeon said he thought his team “wasn’t worth a beat for the whole game”. Junior Guard Aaron Wiggins had a career night with 26 points and Morsell scored 14, but their teammates didn’t offer much. The Terps ended the game by missing field goals seven times, and Turgeon was especially annoyed with the performance of his group on the other end of the floor. Maryland’s defensive intensity, defined by crisp rotations and energy, drove the team on during its strong run. It rarely appeared in the northwest.
“We just weren’t locked up,” said Wiggins. “We have to be consistent on the defensive because then we’ll be in top form.”
Before heading northwest, Turgeon praised its players for how they had grown into a consistent bunch. A solid starting XI was created. Bankers showed progress and offered valuable minutes. But after the defeat, Turgeon said: “We went back to our disagreements when we weren’t a very good team.”
And so, the Terps must now return to their late February form as the season approaches its most critical games. Maryland already has a formula that Turgeon seems to be indebted to. He’s started the same line-up in the last six games – a four-guard look with 6-foot-7 Donta Scott as the only striker on the ground.
Second security guard Hakim Hart moved into and out of the starting group at the beginning of the season, but he’s been excelling recently by taking on part-time duties as point guard and firing critical shots at the same time. Hart played 35 minutes in a win over Michigan State last weekend, and Turgeon said the second player was “twice as much as it is now when he played in December”. Hart, who played sparingly as a freshman, exemplifies why this team needed time to develop, especially with limited practice time in the summer and fall due to the pandemic. The players had to grow into their new roles.
Forwards Jairus Hamilton and Smith, who both moved to Maryland before this season, are coming off the bench and have improved throughout the season. Hamilton averaged 28 points on consecutive nights in Maryland’s games against Nebraska last month.
Finding the eighth member of the rotation took longer. At the start of the conference, a crew of lower classes played sporadic minutes, but none turned out to be an obvious solution to the Big Ten competition. Since Maryland played Minnesota on January 23, the second center Chol Marial, freshman James Graham III, and freshman Marcus Dockery have barely appeared in games. Aquan Smart, a newcomer, has played a little more regularly, but still has no place in the rotation.
Turgeon instead relied on Mona, a former companion who is reliable and rarely makes mistakes. Mona is not a major offensive threat, but he moves the ball and defends well. When Turgeon was recently asked if Mona should take this role in eighth, he said, “We feel great about it. We really do. “
The Terps have settled into this rotation and still put a lot of the burden on their top players. Turgeon attributed the recent surge in part to the fact that more of its players were regularly performing at high levels.
“We figured out who we are and we’ve seen some success lately,” said Morsell as his team drove the winning streak in five games.
Then Maryland faced a sharp decline in the northwest, where only two terps played well and the others made lackluster contributions. The Terps haven’t forgotten what worked for them during the series, but their next game is a test of how quickly they can regain that shape.