A college basketball season is a long and grueling affair, especially if you’re a team that was deemed a preseason top-25 team in the nation and haven't yet met expectations. Maryland men’s basketball is 33% through its regular season schedule and it has certainly been a whirlwind of a campaign so far.
It all started out peachy with former head coach Mark Turgeon and the Terps capturing a 14-point season-opener win against a beatable Quinnipiac team on Nov. 9. And it all seemed to be business as usual in College Park with the program jumping out to a 3-0 start. But, there were underlying problems in those early-season triumphs.
Poor shooting, a lack of offensive creativity and a tendency to play down to its opponent plagued Maryland despite the “perfect” start with wins over George Washington and Vermont. Maryland shot around 37% from the field and 18.6% from three-point range in those two wins.
Trailing at halftime quickly became a common occurrence, and the realization of having an underperforming roster that was thought to have the ideal mesh of players came to fruition in the 71-66 home defeat to George Mason. The inability to go on a run over the final 20 minutes resulted in a crushing defeat in the Xfinity Center. That loss to George Mason wasn't particularly a good game to falter in, as the Patriots currently sit in the 127th spot in the KenPom rankings.
That’s when the avalanche of doubt began to mount regarding if the Terps were truly able to contend with some of the elite teams that span across the country.
Maryland then just barely escaped the push from Hofstra (now No. 117 in KenPom) just a few days after the initial loss, then the trip down to the Bahamas where things went from bad to worse.
Turgeon preached that maybe the warm weather would cure his team’s shooting woes, but that was far from the case. If it weren’t for a gritty nine-point second-half comeback win against Richmond in the opening game, Turgeon may have been out sooner than expected. Alas, the Terps moved onto a meeting with a stronger Louisville team only two days later.
Only 27 points in the first half and then just 28 points in the next half cemented Maryland’s lowest-scoring game of the season in the 63-55 loss to the Cardinals. The Terps shot under 40% from the floor and under 30% yet again from deep. Louisville mounted a huge burst late in the game to seal Maryland’s fate, and to many which would eventually be a surprise, it was the second-to-last game that Turgeon would be the head coach of the program.
The final straw for Turgeon came in the Terps’ Big Ten/ACC Challenge, which was set in College Park against a more-than-solid Virginia Tech team that was coming off two tight losses to ranked opponents. Frustration was building and the storm needed to be weathered on Maryland’s typically-reliable home court.
Maryland issues persisted, however, and once again it endured its previous problems — poor shooting, turnovers and a failure to execute in the second half — during the four-point loss, the Terps’ third defeat on the season.
Senior guard Eric Ayala and transfer point guard Fatts Russell hit combined 3-for-19 shots from the field in what can be argued to be Maryland’s worst shooting performance of the year. The team connected on just one of its 13 attempts from beyond the arc.
Maryland had been taken down on its home court again. The storm wasn’t weathered.
That quickly led to the end of Turgeon’s tenure after he and the program agreed to part ways only a few days after the loss to Virginia Tech. Interim head coach Danny Manning, who was previously an assistant coach that came to Maryland because of Turgeon, took over to lead a reeling program, that seemingly had untapped potential.
And while that potential wasn’t quite realized in Maryland's 67-61 loss to Northwestern in the team’s Big Ten opener on Dec. 5, the Terps’ next game opened some eyes.
The next tall task for Maryland was to wipe away its three-game losing streak in which it had scored 61 points or less in all three defeats. And it had to do so against the 20th-best team in the nation. Florida at the time was coming off a 15-point upset loss to Texas Southern and then a convincing win over North Florida, but all things considered, the Terps caught a ranked team at a good point in time.
Luckily for Maryland at the Basketball Hall of Fame Invitational, which was played at a neutral site in Brooklyn, New York, the game had felt somewhat like a home game. The majority of the cheers from the crowd were audibly in support of the Terps.
The contest was a back-and-forth affair, but something seemed different about the way that Maryland played. Off the 19-point efforts from Ayala and Russell, the Terps were never out of the game and they were able to maintain a lead for the majority of the final eight minutes of the second half. Their top players hit big-time shots, and even though Maryland trailed 66-65 with less than a minute to go, the team stuck together.
Russell’s go-ahead layup with around 58 seconds left and Donta Scott’s clutch off-balanced leaner for two put Maryland up for good and sealed the upset win.
“I love the resiliency of our guys, thought there were times when things weren’t going our way, we got a little bit frustrated, nobody was making plays and we got rattled, but our guys found a way to stay together and that gave us a chance,” Manning said after the win over Florida.
A defeat to the Gators could have been the nail in the coffin on the Terps’ season. Instead, the experienced players on the roster pulled together when it mattered most, and it may have resurrected what felt like a lost season heading into mid-December.
“We’ve been through a lot of adversity, but we stuck together, I feel like that was the main thing,” Russell said. “We had a lot of meetings, you know, heart-to-heart meetings, and told each other that we’re gonna go for this thing, we’re gonna stay together and we’re gonna fight this out.”
The team’s celebration was the most telling part of the win. Maryland’s players had gone through a significant amount of change and the upset victory showed how they adapted to that change.
Manning said a few words to his players in the locker room after the game, which was followed by an eruption from the guys who had captured their first win since Nov. 25. Water was doused over Manning in celebration and then the team came together in a huddle.
“The locker room was very turnt up, if you will, which was a good thing because of our guys worked hard and been through a lot of transitions the last week and a half... just a tremendous team effort,” Manning said.
Yet the celebration must be cut short.
There are plenty of games to go and one upset win doesn’t hand you a bid to the NCAA Tournament. All that stands between the Terps and a daunting Big Ten schedule is just one nonconference opponent that remains on the schedule, which is Brown after the Loyola game was canceled last week. That matchup in late December should be a win for Maryland, and then there are plenty of opportunities to gain some ground in the coming weeks.
Maryland’s first six Big Ten opponents will not be a cakewalk. The Terps, who are currently the No. 49 team in KenPom, will face Iowa (No. 23 KenPom) and Illinois (No. 14 KenPom) on the road before taking on Wisconsin (No. 33 KenPom). Then it’ll set its sights on a rematch with Northwestern (No. 39 KenPom) on the road. Matchups with Rutgers (No. 99 KenPom) and Michigan (No. 16 KenPom) will follow those acts.
There have been plenty of moving parts that have already come about for the Terps, but the toughest challenges are clearly still ahead. There’s also still the possibility that the program might have to navigate issues with COVID-19 that are surging through Division I teams across the country.
Has it been a successful season for Maryland so far? Not by any means. Yet there’s still a fair amount of light at the end of the tunnel. A few more upsets can go a long way, and the Terps will need to find their footing in a talented Big Ten conference after capturing their biggest win of the season to date.
Claiming victory over Florida was a big step in the right direction, and for a Maryland team that has dropped four of its first 10, baby steps in a positive direction can go a long way.
This program doesn’t lack talent and it would be unfair to count them out before the new year arrives. After all, there are still 20 scheduled regular season games to go. Who knows, it could just be a matter of time before Maryland approaches its lofty preseason expectations.
“We feel very confident in the young men on our team. We haven’t played the way that we’re capable of playing,” Manning said after the two-point victory against the Gators. “But also we know we can do better and then today was definitely a step in that direction.”