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Where does Maryland men’s basketball go moving forward?

The Terps’ matchup against Illinois could be a defining point this season.

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Clemson Dawson Powers-USA TODAY Sports

During his postgame press conference following his team’s loss to No. 5 Iowa, head coach Mark Turgeon appeared as if he was already emotionally worn out just six weeks into the season.

With the defeat, Maryland men’s basketball sits with a 6-6 record through 12 games for the first time since 2007-08, also 1-5 to start conference play for the first time since 1992-93.

The Terps find themselves at a crossroads entering a matchup with No. 12 Illinois on Sunday night. A win means they stay above .500. A loss hands the program a losing record for the first time in recent memory.

Four of Maryland’s six games in conference play have been against ranked teams to start a loaded Big Ten slate, but even with that in mind, a lot has been exposed about the 2020-21 Terps. Even Turgeon himself has implied that this team is fundamentally flawed, noting they don’t have a traditional presence down low.

“Very unusual team, very unusual set of circumstances,” he said following the loss to the Hawkeyes.

He is right that there are unusual circumstances as the NCAA tries to pull off the 2020-21 season in the middle of a pandemic. But that is, of course, out of anyone’s control, with every team in the country facing a similar strain.

The makeup of this Maryland squad is a different story, however.

The departures of Anthony Cowan Jr. and Jalen Smith after the 2019-20 season were both expected; most analysts were surprised that Smith even elected to come back for his sophomore season instead of leaping to the NBA as a one-and-done.

More unexpectedly, Maryland had five players transfer out of the program. Twins Makhi and Makhel Mitchell had a sudden departure in December 2019, while Ricky Lindo Jr., Joshua Tomaic and Serrel Smith Jr. all took to the transfer portal this past offseason.

But, realistically, out of this bunch, 6-foot-10 Makhi Mitchell, who came into the program as a four star out of Wilson High School in Washington D.C., was the only one who even had a chance of making a significant impact, let alone to turn into the center this team needed down low. His twin brother, a three star recruit, never had high expectations, with it being widely assumed that he earned a scholarship because the duo was a package deal.

Lindo didn’t have the height or weight to compete against Big Ten bodies, and Tomaic wasn’t likely to fit the role either given his performance thus far in his career as a Terp.

The only members of the 2020 class heading into this past summer were two point guards, Marcus Dockery and Aquan Smart. Dockery was a three-star who committed early in October 2018, but Smart wasn’t ranked at the time he pledged to the program in February 2020.

Turgeon looked to bolster his roster through the transfer portal, but the team missed nearly every player it targeted outside of Boston College’s Jairus Hamilton, including Yale’s Jordan Bruner (6-foot-9 forward, chose Alabama), Colgate’s Rapolas Ivanauskas (6-foot-10 center, chose Cincinnati) and Harvard’s Bryce Aiken (6-foot-0 point guard, chose Seton Hall), among numerous others. The program then secured Galin Smith as a late pickup.

The Maryland head coach also tried to hop into the competition to find a recruit late, making the final cuts for 6-foot-9 Adama Sanogo, a four star, and 7-foot-0 Quincy Ballard, a three star, but that didn’t work out either. Turgeon scrambled to secure an unknown international freshman in Arnaud Revaz, a 6-foot-9 forward from Switzerland; he has seen a total five minutes this season.

Now, the Terps find themselves playing in the Big Ten with what Turgeon himself dubbed a lack of a dominant presence in the paint, which is certainly not an ideal formula — especially with the nature of the conference, which at one point this season saw nine teams ranked in the AP Top 25.

But there also hasn’t been much success in other parts of the offense, which has largely consisted of passing around the perimeter in hopes of finding a shot, with players rarely moving off the ball or getting directions from its point guard as it did from Cowan over the past two seasons. Maryland has shot 42.8% on field goal attempts and 35.4% from deep so far in conference play in 2020-21.

The Terps will face yet another tough test against the Fighting Illini, a team loaded with depth in addition to the star duo of 6-foot-5 guard Ayo Dosunmu and center Kofi Cockburn, who is listed at 7-foot-0, 285 pounds. Dosunmu is averaging 22.3 points and 5.1 assists per game, both of which rank in the top-three of the Big Ten, along with 6.8 rebounds per game. Cockburn has been putting up 17.0 points and a conference-best 10.1 rebounds per outing, and he’s shooting 68.3% from the floor, which ranks second in the Big Ten.

“There’s just not many humans on earth that are like [Cockburn] and that skilled. It’s a load, especially for this year’s team,” Turgeon said. “It’s not a good year to be small. And normally, we’re big and long and athletic around the rim, but we’re not this year. So it is what it is, bad timing for us.”

Though they’ll get six days off and somewhat of a break with a home game against Nebraska (4-7, 0-4 Big Ten) on Jan. 16, the rest of January will bring more hefty challenges for the Terps. They’ll face top-20 teams in three consecutive games in No. 10 Michigan, No. 16 Minnesota and No. 8 Wisconsin, the first two of which are on the road.

Maryland will have a less daunting schedule — at least compared to facing ranked teams night in and night out, as they have thus far — in February and early March, but no win is easy in the 2020-21 Big Ten.

If the head coach himself sees that this team doesn’t have the right pieces to fit his typical offense that revolves around a point guard and center, what adjustments will be made from here on out? Because in this conference, if you don’t react and make a move fast, you’ll be swallowed up whole.