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NCAA Tournament 2017: Maryland ran out of gas this season, but overachieved along the way

The Terps’ postseason run seemed like it should have gone further, but Mark Turgeon’s built them for the future.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Maryland vs Xavier Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Maryland basketball’s season is done.

It ended when the Terps dropped back-to-back games, first in the Big Ten Tournament to Northwestern, then to Xavier in the NCAA Tournament. That’s how college basketball’s postseason works. Maryland played poorly two games in a row, resulting in short trips to D.C. and Orlando.

But this team stumbled to the finish line. Maryland lost five of its last seven games, using wins over Rutgers and Michigan State to stop a three-game streak. This was a stark departure from the team’s 20-2 start. And it made sense, on a few levels. Maryland played a week non-conference slate, as has been established by now.

The NCAA Tournament is a crapshoot. Judge Maryland on its regular season instead.

It was natural for the team to regress in Big Ten play, even with the conference suffering a down season. Before starting conference play, Maryland played five teams KenPom ranked in the top 100 of Division I, and eight teams that weren’t. The Terps’ only non-conference loss came to Pitt, and they got what ended up being pretty good wins over Kansas State and Oklahoma State. But they were also rarely blowing out bad teams.

Maryland lost five of its last seven games, and limped into the postseason for the second consecutive year. The explanations here were a little easier. Maryland’s Big Ten schedule was relatively backloaded. The team played Purdue, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan State in its final nine regular season games, and a young team was running out of gas.

This team was always living on borrowed time, but it seemed like they could have lasted a little longer.

This was a team that started three freshman for the entire season, and lost a crucial piece — center Michal Cekovsky — just as he’d gotten healthy for the stretch run. But Maryland still lost to a Northwestern team it beat on the road earlier this season and a Xavier team that was missing two of its four best players.

A healthy Cekovsky wouldn’t have solved all of Maryland’s problems, but it would have been a start. Bigger contributions from the bench certainly would’ve helped. So would just a little more from Melo Trimble, who was 1-for-9 from three and 5-for-15 from the field against Xavier. Trimble was hardly the problem, though. Mark Turgeon did tighten his rotation against Xavier, but didn’t get much from Jared Nickens, Dion Wiley or L.G. Gill this whole season. Without Cekovsky, Maryland didn’t have much of a bench beyond Ivan Bender and some hot stretches from Jaylen Brantley.

Still, this was really supposed to be a rebuilding year. Maryland’s set itself up to be a contender next season.

Maryland didn’t even know if Trimble was coming back. Turgeon had already lost four starters from last season, and any team that isn’t Kentucky or Duke is going to have a hard time replacing that kind of production. Trimble stayed, and Turgeon added Anthony Cowan, Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson — three freshmen who all exceeded expectations. Jackson faded down the stretch before returning to form against Xavier; he is well ahead of his expected learning curve and could even leave as soon as after his sophomore year. All three should be stars next season — even if none made the Big Ten’s all-freshman team.

The team didn’t have much of a veteran presence, with Trimble and Dodd being the only regular rotation players with multiple years of Division I experience. Freshmen played heavy minutes, and without much of a veteran presence, they didn’t get enough help. That could change next season, as Wiley will be further removed from his knee injury and Gill will have graduated.

Turgeon’s gotten Maryland to a good place. The roster is almost fully stocked with former blue-chip recruits and high-upside prospects. Micah Thomas and Joshua Tomiac served redshirts seasons this year and should be in line to contribute in some form next season. If Jackson does leave after his sophomore year, Thomas and/or Tomiac could be developed enough to replace him. If he doesn’t, Maryland has a surplus of lengthy forwards, which is never bad.

If Trimble stays around for his senior season, Turgeon should have a more complete team. If he doesn’t, Maryland will have three outstanding sophomores leading the way, with some better-developed role players surrounding them. That’s still a good place to be.