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Why this Maryland basketball team could live up to the expectations the 2015-16 team couldn’t

With high expectations going into the season, the Terps have depth on their side.

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NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Maryland vs LSU John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

At times this offseason, the Maryland men’s basketball hype machine has been out of control. Andy Katz, who was already high on the Terps last year, has lauded Maryland as a Final Four contender and has senior point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. listed as one of the top 10 players in the country. The Athletic’s Seth Davis has the Terps at No. 4 in his offseason rankings, behind only perennial powerhouses Michigan State, Kentucky and Duke.

It’s the type of buzz that hasn’t come often in College Park since the 2002 national championship. The last team with this level of expectations was the 2015-16 team, which entered the year ranked No. 3 in the Associated Press Poll. That team felt off from the beginning, and after a 22-2 start went 5-7 down the stretch before falling to Kansas in the Sweet 16.

Some fans think that will happen again, which has created an interesting vibe among the fan base. But heading into the 2019-20 season, there a few key differences from that team.

In 2015, the hype built throughout the offseason instead of starting right when the 2014-15 season ended. Six days after a second-round NCAA Tournament loss to West Virginia, Diamond Stone committed. Four days later, Melo Trimble announced he was returning for his sophomore year. Eight days after that, Jake Layman announced he would be back for his senior season. A month later, it was reported former Duke guard Rasheed Sulaimon would join the team as a graduate transfer.

With Layman and Trimble returning plus the addition of a veteran guard and potential freshman phenom, it looked like Mark Turgeon had assembled a Final Four contender. It was a Final Four starting five, but not a Final Four roster.

Dion Wiley tore his meniscus just weeks before the season, leaving Maryland without a potential sixth man. The Terps had no player who could consistently give the team a lift off the bench. Down low, Damonte Dodd could never stay out of foul trouble or finish enough around the basket and Michal Cekovsky didn’t make the leap in his sophomore season. On the perimeter, Jared Nickens wasn’t much more than a three-point shooter and Jaylen Brantley was so bad early in the season that walk-on legend Varun Ram had to play serious minutes in Big Ten play.

“We shouldn’t have won a national championship in 2015. We didn’t have the complete right pieces with Dion Wiley getting hurt. I mean our bench was shattered,” Andrew Terrell, who was a freshman at the time, said on our ouTTakes podcast. “We had five players really essentially, maybe six, that really could produce for us every single night. And that’s really tough on a coach to not have a deep bench.”

This year that shouldn’t be the case. This year’s team returns seven of its eight leading scorers, with all but one being an upperclassman. Jalen Smith showed his ceiling in last year’s NCAA Tournament and will be the go-to option in the post. Aaron Wiggins showed glimpses last year and should be more confident to find his own shot in the offense. The same can be said for Eric Ayala, who showed poise atypical for a freshman. After being more of a defensive stopper the last two seasons, Darryl Morsell looks to be a growing into a two-way player who can shut down the team’s best defensive player and be a force around the rim.

Coming off the bench, Ricky Lindo and Serrel Smith Jr. are expected to make a big leap. Turgeon came into last year planning to redshirt both but was forced to play them to expand the rotation. That experience should pay dividends this year, as they are both proven commodities who should only get better. Incoming freshmen Makhi Mitchell and Donta Scott look like they can contribute right away, which gives the team a potential nine-man rotation from the start. Turgeon has finally built a roster with both future pros and program guys, which is the recipe for success in college basketball for every team not named Duke and Kentucky.

This year’s team will also look to build on the strong chemistry, something the 2015-16 team lacked. That team never quite gelled from the start, needing to rally to beat a Georgetown team that would finish 15-18 and overcome a double-digit deficit against Rider in back-to-back games in November.

Last year’s squad appeared to relish any time they were with each other, and that chemistry should only grow this year. That can be crucial when the team goes through a rough patch, which is bound to happen during a season of at least 31 games. Even when things started to get rocky near the end of last year, Maryland didn’t unravel. A disjointed team would’ve folded if it trailed by 15 in the second half of an NCAA Tournament game like the Terps did against LSU.

Despite all the upside, Maryland still has a few questions it has to answer. Last year’s Terps entered the year as a plucky upstart. This season’s team will enter with a target on its back. It doesn’t seem like a group that will change with expectations, but we can’t say for sure until the season actually starts.

Then there’s the question of which Anthony Cowan shows up. When he’s on, Cowan is the straw that stirs the Terrapins’ drink. But for much of the second half of last season, Cowan struggled, looking uncomfortable splitting time between point guard and playing off-the-ball. Like Trimble in 2015-16, this team will go as far as Cowan takes it.

If everything goes according to plan, fans will expect a deep postseason run, which the Terps haven’t had in eight years under Turgeon. While he’s gotten the program back to being an NCAA Tournament regular, he hasn’t made much noise. The 2015-16 was the first to go to the Sweet Sixteen since 2003, though that felt like a consolation prize for a team with such high preseason expectations. Getting back to the second weekend and further is the expectation this year, and anything less would mean Turgeon’s seat would be as hot as ever.

Of course, we’re still a few months away from finding out any of this. This offseason has been similar to 2015, even if there’s reason to believe things could be different. Maybe Cowan will help lead Maryland to a banner season. Or maybe another early postseason exit is bound to happen. The only way to answer these questions is play the games, which start against Holy Cross on Nov. 5.