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The Maryland basketball 2017-18 eulogy

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Running through the ups and downs of a disappointing season.

Jackson Fernando Huerter oh my Lila Bromberg | Testudo Times

Maryland men’s basketball’s season is a wrap after it was unceremoniously excluded from the NIT field on Sunday.

So that means the Terps will end the season with a 19-13 record, going 8-10 in the Big Ten, 2-8 on the road and 1-2 in neutral site games. They also went 2-8 in games decided by five points or less. It absolutely wasn’t the resume of a NCAA Tournament team, but the NIT appeared to be a lock. In all honesty, it may not be the worst thing that could’ve happened.

Instead, Maryland was included among the “First Four Out” for the little dance, and the offseason begins a little early. It’s the first time the Terps have missed the postseason since joining the Big Ten in 2014, but the fourth time in Mark Turgeon’s seven years at the helm.

That makes next season crucial, but first, we lay the 2017-18 season to rest.

What went wrong

A lot, as evidenced by Maryland missing both the NCAA Tournament and the NIT. The Terps also had two opportunities to hit the 20-win plateau and lost both times: first by 24 to Michigan on Senior Day, then by five to Wisconsin in the first round of the Big Ten tournament. The loss to Wisconsin also meant it was a second straight season that Maryland went one-and-done in the conference tournament, and secured its worst finish ever in the Big Ten.

It was also a team that lost arguably its most skilled player along with another contributor, when Justin Jackson was shut down with a torn labrum just days before Ivan Bender was diagnosed with a torn meniscus.

Jackson’s injury was a huge blow. Even while playing hurt, Jackson was the Terps’ leading rebounder and third-leading scorer when he was shut down, with 9.8 points and 8.1 rebounds a game. He was pegged as a first-round pick in the preseason and, while he has fallen off most mock drafts, could ultimately still choose to leave.

Bender’s injury took another big off of Maryland’s bench. A lot of what the junior did wasn’t evident on the stat sheet—he averaged 3.4 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.4 assists in 14 games—but the floor was spaced better and the offense ran smoother when he was on the court.

However, before either of those injuries, the Terps weren’t exactly firing on all cylinders. Turgeon remarked multiple times that the team was behind on implementing the offense. That put the team behind the 8-ball from the beginning, and is on the coaching staff as much as anyone. After the injuries, Turgeon pivoted to a motion offense that showed some promise but enjoyed limited success.

Moreover, it was a team that couldn’t finish. The road record and record in close games speak volumes. Another damning stat: Maryland hadn’t won more than two games in a row since Jan. 1. The Terps spent an entire season losing the same way and lacked a closer. Jackson was never at full health, so there’s no telling if that could have been him. The Terps had fight, but started behind and couldn’t get over the hump.

What went right

It was an uphill battle after Jackson was shut down, and losing Bender shortly after put the Terps in an even tougher bind. Still, Maryland managed to be in a lot of games down the stretch. The injuries forced Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter to step up, and also allowed for some other pieces to develop with heavy minutes.

Cowan earned All-Big Ten third team and all-defensive team nods while playing a conference-high 96.7 percent of minutes in Maryland’s 18 league games. He was the team’s top assist man and thief, as well as its second-leading scorer and tied for third-best rebounder, with averages of 5.1 assists and 1.5 steals along with 14.8 points and 4.4 rebounds a game.

Huerter stepped up as the go-to scoring option once Jackson went down, a mantle he gradually took from Cowan. Huerter unlocked a lot of potential in his offensive game this season, while continuing to contribute all around. He earned an honorable mention from the conference after posting averages of 15.8 points, five rebounds and 3.4 assists while shooting 41.7 percent from beyond the arc. He also stepped up as a vocal leader on the court and in the media room.

Bruno Fernando and Darryl Morsell proved to be capable contributors, and the former a potential offensive building block. Morsell was the first to pick up a Big Ten Freshman of the Week nod, but it was Fernando who would grab two after the calendar turned and end up on the conference’s all-freshman team.

Together, they gave the team emotion and significant statistical contributions. Fernando was a presence inside and progressed as a passer as the season went on, averaging 10.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.2 blocks and showing fairly consistent range out past 15 feet. Morsell didn’t prove to be much of true point guard on offense, but proved a defender capable of guarding every position. His jumpshot is a work in progress, to put it nicely, but without a jumper he still averaged 8.7 points, 4.4 rebounds and two assists a game.

Fernando has some draft stock and could depart, but that’s less likely than Jackson departing. If both Jackson and Fernando return, this team returns a core that just spent an entire season in close game situations and knows how it feels to lose them. Cowan and Huerter could make up one of the best backcourts in the Big Ten next season, and Jackson and Fernando could make up one of the most skilled frontcourts.

What to make of it

This season wasn’t a success by any metric. It was also destined to be difficult once Jackson and Bender went down. This team didn’t thrive under the conditions and, as a result, won’t play any postseason games.

The Terps lose three seniors in Michal Cekovsky, Jared Nickens and grad transfer Sean Obi. Cekovsky and Nickens were four-year players that combined to average 11.5 points and 4.4 rebounds a game. Obi rarely played, but was more of a practice presence that provided toughness behind the scenes.

There’s also an intriguing class of freshmen coming in, headlined by local five-star Jalen Smith with four-stars Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala in tow. Smith is a local two-time player of the year and McDonald’s All-American and Jordan Brand game participant. Wiggins is a wing and Ayala is billeted as a combo guard; both are top-80 players in their own right. Transfer Schnider Herard also becomes eligible midseason, and there’s still at least one open scholarship for Turgeon to work with (more if anyone else leaves).

Turgeon’s seat is warm heading into next season, but he still has five years left on an extension that pays $2.7 million annually without a buyout clause. Do the math if you want, but it’s not happening, especially with Kevin Anderson still on “sabbatical.” And especially not with a high-profile recruiting class en route, and the potential to return essentially the same core next to those recruits. Turgeon could choose to shake up his coaching staff, but one way or the other, next season is show-and-prove. The Terps will play a summer tournament in Italy that the freshmen will be with the team for, and Turgeon will have no excuse for being behind.

This was a team that came into the season with a lot of potential. It underachieved in difficult situations, but it never quit. The Terps gave themselves a fighting chance in all but three games this season, but couldn’t close out. Injury-aggravated depth issues outweighed the talent and even the effort.

So here lies Maryland’s 2017-18 season. It wasn’t pretty, but had its moments. Gone too soon, but hopefully quickly forgotten. Pour one out.