Relief. That was the first word both head coach Mark Turgeon and senior leader Darryl Morsell used to describe their emotions after Maryland men’s basketball was announced as a 10-seed in the last section of the bracket on Selection Sunday. There was excitement, but that came second.
“It definitely took a little bit too long, man,” Morsell said with a chuckle. “...When we finally seen our name called it was just like a relieving feeling just amongst us because we know how much we’ve been through this year and just all the adversity we had to overcome. It was just a great feeling to know we still alive fighting for a chance to play for something special.”
Turgeon paced around the room back and forth behind his players as the team waited throughout the selection show. He said he always had a feeling the team was in, but the process was still anxiety inducing.
“I [told them], ‘I’d rather be nervous than depressed,’” Turgeon said. “Because depressed when you’re watching it [is] when you know you’re not in, that is just an awful, awful feeling. So I can handle the stress waiting for my team to be called because it’s worth it.”
After Michigan State was announced as the 11-seed, it became without a doubt clear that his team would be in the tournament, with the correct presumption that the Terps would be a 10-seed and likely facing UConn.
Once the seeding was officially unveiled, guys jumped out of their chairs in excitement and Turgeon said there were tears in the room as well, but the head coach stayed seated as he took everything in.
“Just, it’s been exhausting to this point,” Turgeon said. “This will rejuvenate all of us and get us going in the right direction.”
Pulling off a basketball season in the middle of a pandemic is tough enough as is. Players were tested at least six times a week, stayed mostly in their apartments without a chance to see much of their families or friends, and game days meant empty arenas instead of a crowd cheering them on.
But Maryland also faced a challenge of its own in trying to mesh as a new team following the departures of stars Anthony Cowan Jr. and Jalen Smith, along with a slew of role players expected to take bigger roles in Ricky Lindo Jr., Serrel Smith Jr. and Joshua Tomaic.
Turgeon added transfers Jairus Hamilton and Galin Smith from Boston College and Alabama, respectively. Freshmen Aquan Smart, Marcus Dockery and Arnaud Revaz came into the fold as well. The lack of an offseason due to NCAA rules amid the pandemic hindered the fusion even more, making it even harder for the team to find its collective chemistry and identity.
The summer restrictions extended longer than expected, however. The program dealt with COVID-19 issues in the early fall, which Turgeon previously said kept the Terps from practicing for several weeks.
“We didn’t have a summer, we didn’t have no fall, for real,” Morsell said. “Like when the season started, I don’t think we had the same preseason that other teams had.”
As such, it took the team a long time to find its defensive identity and carve out roles for each player, which for guys like sophomores Hakim Hart and Donta Scott were certainly not the positions they entered the program expecting to play in.
This all came over Turgeon’s mind as he heard the matchup between Rutgers and Clemson called in one of the other regions Sunday. He found himself reflecting on Maryland’s 67-51 loss to the Tigers back in December and how much has changed since then. “I mean, are you kidding me? We couldn’t make a pass in that game,” he said.
Then came the start of Big Ten play, which brought even more challenges. Simply put, playing in a league that produced four of the top eight overall seeds in the tournament is not an easy task, especially on top of the adversity the team was already dealing with. But it forced the Terps to get better, which makes them feel more prepared for March Madness ahead.
“Because our league was so good, especially at the top, for us, we had to figure out a way to compete and give ourselves a chance to win,” Turgeon said. “And we really had to change who we were and how we wanted to play to how we had to play to be successful.”
Though it took some time, Morsell said that the team began to see improvement as practices continued throughout the season, which began to build everyone’s confidence. The upset road victory over Illinois, a team now a No. 1 seed in the tournament, on Jan. 10 helped grow the Terps’ belief in themselves even more. It was also that game when Turgeon tried Hart out at point guard for the first time in the absence of Eric Ayala, which has paid dividends down the line.
The Terps know they were doubted, fully aware that many didn’t think they would make it to this point, especially after a 4-9 start to Big Ten play, but they could see the progress being made each day. And though the team has still faced its fair share of struggles and disappointing losses following, that hard work began to pay off during its five-game win streak in February, allowing them a chance to go dancing.
“Regardless of what people were saying before the season, regardless of what people were saying during the season...we just stuck together and just trusted in the process and trusted in each other,” Morsell said. “I don’t even know how to explain it, but like we believed and that’s all that really mattered. And we here, so now it’s time to play basketball, man.”