NEW YORK — Whether in real life or on the internet, you’ve probably seen a cat chase a laser on the wall. The feline locates its bright, shiny target and lunges for it. It’s the same motion it uses to grab a ball of yarn and have its way with it. But the cat never claims this elusive prize, which either moves out of reach or turns out to not be tangible in the first place.
That’s Maryland basketball in 2017-18.
The Terps, whose Big Ten tournament run is over following a 59-54 loss to Wisconsin at Madison Square Garden, will bring a 19-13 record into whatever semblance of a postseason is offered to them. Ten of those wins came against mid-majors. Seven more were over teams that finished beneath them in the Big Ten. Both of the remaining two were at home and the Terps were favored. Every other game represents some form of blown opportunity.
“It seemed like pretty much every game that we lost, every close game, we can kind of look back and say it was the same thing over and over again,” sophomore guard Kevin Huerter said.
Thursday afternoon’s defeat at Madison Square Garden was freakishly emblematic of the whole season. The Terps were hardly ever ahead, but they were always close. Huerter and fellow sophomore Anthony Cowan Jr. combined with freshman Bruno Fernando to give Maryland a chance. The game was tied four times in the final minutes, but Maryland never got over the hump.
“I just felt like we were always behind the whole time,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “We never took the lead. Whether it was fouls, them shooting more free throws or whatever it was, I just felt like we were fighting uphill all day.”
Every loss is brought about by a different combination of plagues. Maryland has lost games because of turnovers, rebounding, cold shooting, shoddy perimeter defense, questionable coaching decisions and a slew of other reasons. And leaving College Park seemed to amplify all of those things. The Terps finished 2-8 on the road; their only other wins away from home were against Stony Brook in a semi-away season opener and New Mexico in the third-place game of the Emerald Coast Classic.
Thursday’s defeat was the same struggle. Maryland has a sizable alumni base in New York, but a noon tip seemed to minimize whatever advantage that would have provided. Without a crowd heavily on their side, the Terps simply weren’t the same team.
Some of that was depth, as Justin Jackson and Ivan Bender’s season-ending injuries left the Terps with nine healthy scholarship players, only seven of whom saw consistent minutes. Some of it was coaching; Turgeon had his fair share of lapses and iffy game management. Some of it was dumb luck, as evidenced by a 2-8 record in games decided by five points or fewer. This pie chart will look different depending on who you ask, but the coach will always receive the most public blame. Turgeon was always the first to pin losses on himself, even if the players shared some of that responsibility.
“Coach Turgeon doesn’t miss rebounds,” Huerter said. “Coach Turgeon doesn’t miss a free throw. Coach Turgeon doesn’t throw the ball away. Coach Turgeon doesn’t [not] execute plays when we’re supposed to execute plays that we practiced multiple times. That’s all on the players.”
Even so, Turgeon faced more criticism this season than perhaps any in his tenure, and at least the most since Maryland’s 17-15 campaign in 2014. His job doesn’t appear to be in serious danger yet, both for contractual and basketball reasons—Maryland did go 79-25 in the three seasons preceding this one—but he hasn’t helped himself in the last week. The Terps followed up an emphatic embarrassment on Senior Day with a one-and-done performance in the Big Ten tournament, and they’re still waiting on any findings from an internal investigation regarding Diamond Stone receiving money from an agent in 2016.
These events have left a sour taste that will last well into the offseason. It won’t really disintegrate until 2018-19 roster reaches its final form and the hype for the upcoming season rises. Maryland’s top five scorers this year were all freshmen or sophomores, so unless both Fernando and Jackson bolt for the pros, the core is already firmly in place for next year. Throw in another recruiting class of three blue-chippers, including five-star forward Jalen Smith, and Turgeon is suddenly looking at perhaps the best full rotation he’s had at Maryland.
But this season leaves plenty of questions that the Terps will need to ask themselves, from which players need to improve in which areas to how Turgeon should fill out next year’s roster to how to bring home attendance back up. Everyone in the program knows they can’t spend next season sloppily grasping for targets that evade them in comic fashion. They need results, and the quest is about to begin anew.