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Three thoughts ahead of the Maryland men’s basketball season

The Terps face lots of unknowns in 2020-21.

Maryland v Michigan State Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images

The 2020-21 men’s college basketball season is just two days away, with Maryland set to take on Old Dominion to kick things off Wednesday.

Head coach Mark Turgeon’s squad enters a season of uncertainty, and it isn’t just because the unusual nature of this season amid the COVID-19 pandemic; the Terrapins are without Anthony Cowan Jr. and Jalen Smith, their two best players from a year ago

Here are what storylines I’ll be following in my fourth and final season covering this Maryland team.

Maryland faces an uphill battle

The Terps started last season ranked No. 7 in the preseason AP Top 25 poll, but it’s a much different scenario entering 2020-21.

Maryland was viewed by many as a championship contender before the season was shut down, but in a complete turnaround, the team is nowhere to be found on any lists of the top teams of the country, with its highest mark coming as No. 39 in CBS Sports’ complete rankings. Maryland is also ranked No. 51 in the country by KenPom.

In its preview of the conference, which is expected to be the toughest in the country with seven ranked teams, several ESPN analysts remarked that Maryland is likely to face a big decline in performance this year. All four of those four reporters, as well as CBS Sports and Sports Illustrated, projected the team to finish 11th in the Big Ten, and leading bracketologist Joe Lunardi currently has it missing the NCAA Tournament.

Though they do the best they can to not pay attention to what’s being said, players know they are being disregarded heading into this year. They’re trying to use that to their advantage.

“For me, personally, that’s something I’ve embraced my whole life, just taking on that underdog role,” Eric Ayala said. “A lot of people not expecting a lot of us this year, it kind of makes it easier for us to just go out and compete and play with that chip on our shoulder. A lot of guys are kind of buying in on proving a lot of people wrong.”

Still, this team has a huge challenge ahead and it’s very improbable that it’ll have anywhere close to the success it did last season.

The play of Aaron Wiggins is crucial

With the losses of Cowan and Smith, someone needs to step up as the leading scorer and go-to guy; Wiggins is expected to take on the task.

“I’m just stepping in with the same mentality I’ve always had, which is doing whatever it takes for my team to get a win,” Wiggins said. “Making sure I’m a leader on the court, off the court, during timeouts, you know, at any given time, making sure that everybody’s locked in and in the right mindset.”

The 2020 Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year is Maryland’s leading scorer returning from last season, in which he averaged 10.4 points, 4.9 rebounds and 28.5 minutes per game — all good for third on the team.

Wiggins showed elite shooting ability throughout high school and his freshman year, in which he shot 41.3% from deep and had 11 games with at least three triple, but struggled at times last season. He finished 2019-20 with a 31.7% mark from deep and 37.7% from the floor.

Despite the shooting struggles, the Greensboro, North Carolina, native, improved in many other facets of his game. He showed off his athleticism and versatility with his play inside the arc, which included some jaw-dropping dunks, and he became a force on the defensive end.

Now, Wiggins just needs to put it all together. That jump is not only crucial to Maryland’s success, but could solidify him as a 2021 draft pick

“Just being consistently better each and every night is really what I’m asking for out of him,” Turgeon said. “And to realize that Jalen is not here anymore, Anthony Cowan’s not here anymore, and he needs to, you know, kind of step into that role.”

There are likely to be significant disruptions

The college basketball season is set to start smack in the middle of the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Basketball presents its own challenges with more games and travel per week than college football, which had 15 games canceled or postponed Saturday. And with smaller rosters, if even a few players get the coronavirus, a program could suddenly be without enough people to compete.

As of Sunday, a total of 35 college basketball programs were currently paused, including notables such as Syracuse, Seton Hall, Florida and DePaul; many more have had to halt team activities in recent months.

Ten teams have already opted out of the season, including the entire Ivy League. Several early games and tournaments have been canceled or had teams withdraw over the past week, in addition to ones called off previously. Many of the teams out of commission right now have already had to scrap their first three games of the season.

“The key is if someone does get it on our team that it doesn’t spread,” Turgeon said. “That’s the whole key and really will determine the success of our season.”

Maryland learned that the hard way when it had an outbreak a few months back. Players were allowed to go back home in August and one player tested positive upon returning to campus towards the end of the month. The virus spread around the group, causing the team to miss a few weeks of practice, with one player out for nearly a month.

Set on being extra cautious ahead of the season, coaches have recently told players to wear masks in their apartments. Everyone is required to wear masks and socially distance around Xfinity Center, with the only exception being for players on the court during practice. And Darryl Morsell said after huddle at the end of each practice, players tell each other to “control their bubble.”

“Everybody on this team, we one bubble, for real. And we gotta control who comes in it, for real, be selective about who’s in it and stuff like that,” Morsell said. “So we definitely try to stay as safe as possible because we know they’re limitations that getting Covid and stuff could have on the team.”

But Turgeon noted that, as shown through the football program’s recent outbreak, even with controlled environments and safety precautions, “We’re not going to be able to stop the spread of it.”

“Is it going to go perfect? No, it’s not going to go perfect,” he said. “We’re gonna have pauses in the season throughout most teams in the country probably. The bottom line is that we do everything we can during these pauses to make sure our guys are safe and healthy.”