A few days prior to Maryland basketball’s game against Bryant, 7’2 freshman Chol Marial simply told teammate Aaron Wiggins before practice, “I’m ready.”
“Just be patient,” Wiggins told him. “It’s going to come.”
Bogged down with injuries, the South Sudan native hadn’t played competitive basketball in two years. After having surgery on Sept. 4 to repair stress fractures in both legs, Marial was made active for gameplay on Dec. 19 against Seton Hall but didn’t see the floor. He was expected to finally get his chance Sunday in Maryland’s last nonconference game of the season.
“It’s your day,” Wiggins told his teammate in the hours before his debut in a Terps’ uniform. “Enjoy it.”
Marial certainly did, and the Xfinity Center crowd was loving it too, giving him a standing ovation filled with loud cheers as he subbed in on Gary Williams Court for the first time.
The freshman showed he was further along than expected, finishing with six points (3-for-4 from the floor), five rebounds, a block and an assist in just under 14 minutes.
“I thought he would be a little bit more nervous, a little bit more out of it,” head coach Mark Turgeon said after the 80-74 victory. “For him to do what he did tonight was pretty impressive. ... He was good, his attitude was good, and what he did was energize the building. He energized our team.”
The front court depth for Maryland was left as a big question mark after it was announced 6’10 twins Makhi and Makhel Mitchell were no longer with the program on Dec. 27.
Turgeon remarked prior to Sunday’s game that 6’10 senior Joshua Tomiac and 6’9 sophomore Ricky Lindo would pick up a lot of the slack down low, but instead, Marial played more minutes than both of them combined, showing he could be the big man the Terps desperately need.
Shortly after subbing in with 12:09 remaining in the first half, Marial scored the first points of his collegiate career. Sophomore guard Eric Ayala drove into the paint and tried to use a pump fake against two defenders to sink a layup, but the ball hit the backboard and clanked off the rim. Marial quickly grabbed the rebound and threw down a putback dunk with ease, sending fans into an uproar.
“I was just too hyped to feel that crowd on my back, and to play on the big stage like that is really hype,” Marial said. “But I was not nervous.”
A few minutes later, Wiggins tried to use a spin move in the paint, but the layup attempt bounced off the backboard. Marial pounced on the rebound from the right block and threw down an emphatic slam.
And on the defensive end, the freshman used his size to his advantage. With under five minutes left in the first half, the big man stood strong down low as his opponent went up for a layup, forcing a held ball turnover.
Then in the second half, Marial really showed off his unique wingspan. Bryant guard Benson Lin attempted a finger roll shot in the paint, but the Terp leapt up into the air and swatted the ball away.
“The one thing that sticks out to me is just how he protects the rim,” senior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. said. “Obviously, when you’re driving and you see a 7’2 dude, you kind of rethink how you get around them. So that’s what we need from him.”
Marial, who smiled with glee throughout the game and his postgame press conference with media, was just happy to be on the court. For the guy who teammates says remained surprisingly positive and upbeat throughout his recovery, it seemed as if playing competitive basketball for the first time in two years was better than any Christmas present he could have asked for.
“Just to have this opportunity is something that he’s embracing ... I don’t really know how to say it, but like, he’s appreciative of the game of basketball,” junior guard Darryl Morsell said earlier in the week. “He’s able to play at his happy place. So when he steps on the floor, you see it — he’s playing with energy, talking, affecting shots around the rim.”
Marial’s teammates say Maryland fans have only seen a small glimpse of what he can do, remarking on his feel in the post and ability to shoot it from long range. After all, it was only his first game.
“It’s like you’re missing homework, so you gotta keep doing it until you get the feeling in,” Marial said. “Then when you get a feeling, you’re gonna have a chance to get out there and shoot it, or get a pass, run quick. And so, I’m just taking it one step a day.”