Maryland's basketball team existed in a weird space this year. The Terps entered the season as a popular national title pick, and they remained so well into February. Even this March, plenty of people thought they had it in them. In the days leading up to the Terps' season-ending loss to Kansas on Thursday, I'd come around to expecting Maryland to beat the NCAA Tournament's top overall seed. The Terps had a tantalizing glow about them, even when they weren't their best.
The Terps wound up winning three times as many games as they lost, finishing 27-9. That's really good for most programs, and it's really good for Maryland. The Terps made their first Sweet 16 since 2003, finally affording themselves the chance to put a banner in the rafters at Xfinity Center. (Brenda Frese's women's program had been doing all of the heavy lifting in this department for the past decade.)
Before the season, I felt Maryland's season had to be reasonably called a success if the team got to the Sweet 16. Before sitting down to write this column, I've tried to think about whether that's still true. Ultimately, I think it is not – although I'm just one person, and there are several fair views on this subject.
The Terps' expectations this season were more intoxicating than a Wednesday night at Cornerstone. They were talented, and they knew it, and so did a campus of 37,000 students and a fan and alumni network that is far larger. The anticipation for the season was so strong that when Maryland lost seven games in the regular season, most of us didn't think it was good enough. That's not an easy bar to clear. The Terps are people, not robots.
My earlier view that the Sweet 16 would mark a successful year was contingent on Maryland developing and looking like the elite team its roster reflected before the year started. That might have been unfair, but it's how it was. In myriad ways, the Terps didn't develop. Their defensive rebounding became a liability and never got fixed, despite their considerable size. Their shooting deteriorated badly once their schedule got harder, which is to be expected but still wasn't at all pretty. An effective offensive identity never took shape.
Ultimately, Maryland gets to hang a banner. This was a Sweet 16 squad, and that's worth celebrating forever. About 4.56 percent of Division I basketball teams get as far as the Terps did. It's deeply meaningful. It's also meaningful that Mark Turgeon has put together a top-20 recruiting class for next season, with his team's on-court momentum undoubtedly playing a role in bolstering its profile on the trail. That is tangible progress. It matters.
On the other hand, Maryland didn't take a complete step into the sport's top tier this year.
The Terps looked to be on that track for a while, when they were the No. 2-ranked team in the country as late as February. But reputations are made in March, and Maryland went 5-6 in its last 11 games. The Terps didn't make the Big Ten Tournament final or the South Regional final in the Big Dance. The Sweet 16 berth is great, but it's not as great as it would've been if the Terps hadn't stumbled to the finish with such clunkiness.
As the season draws to a close, Maryland has unanswered questions. Some of these are good and natural: Will Diamond Stone, Melo Trimble and Robert Carter Jr. leap to the NBA next year, continuing their basketball journeys and making Maryland proud all over the world? Will Anthony Cowan be ready to start at point guard as a freshman in the event Trimble decides to leave? Will the Terps keep recruiting at a high level? (Yes, probably, on this front.)
But some of the questions Maryland has to ask are not good ones. Why couldn't Turgeon get more than a No. 5 seed and a second-place Big Ten finish out of a roster with plenty of professional talent? Why couldn't Maryland beat good teams anywhere but in College Park? Why didn't Michal Cekovsky and Jared Nickens, two talented sophomores, take more tangible steps forward? Why didn't Maryland get farther?
The Terps were prisoners of high expectations, but they still had the skill to meet them. They were playing in a tough conference and a tough tournament bracket, but they still had chances to win more games than they did. They could have found answers to head off some of those questions from even needing to be asked.
Yet they won 27 games. They made a regional semifinal. They gave the University of Maryland something captivating and spirited to rally around. They were a source of pride. From every interaction I've had with them, they were good people. They were good ambassadors for a school we all care about.
This season was not a success. This season was not a failure. It just was, sitting on the soft middle ground between Good and Bad that exists to keep all of us on the brink of bliss.