Maryland men’s basketball freshman Aquan Smart is on a mission. Yes, of course, he and the Terps are pushing towards the postseason, but, he’s also pushing for something else: a Defensive Player of the Year award for senior Darryl Morsell.
After nearly every game in recent weeks, Smart has gone up to Morsell and told him that he deserves the honor, declaring that he’s going to be the one to get the message out there to make sure it happens. Though the senior guard is a team-first guy who doesn’t even have accolades on his mind, Smart, along with fellow freshman James Graham III, is fully committed to leading the charge through what he calls “the club and the presidency.”
“He’s been playing tremendously, so we just feel like that’s something that he deserves,” Smart told Testudo Times. “...I see him do it every day, I see the work he puts in, I see the dedication he has, I see all the great qualities he has as a person, and that just makes me want to push harder for this guy.”
Maryland’s assistant director of video production, Tony Price, and sports information director Sean Ellenby picked up on their enthusiasm, often coming on social media as well, and soon a video was in the works. Smart dressed up in a suit and tie, also donning a pair of glasses, as he led a meeting for the “Darryl Morsell for Defensive Player of the Year Fan Club.” He serves as president and Graham is the VP.
I’m Aquan Smart and I approve this message ! https://t.co/0hvDWrVE0j— Aquan (@AquanSmart) February 25, 2021
“It’s actually funny cause you don’t expect to just go out there and [go], ‘Come on, let’s make this video,’ for this type of thing, but I mean, I think Darryl deserves it. He’s been a real lockdown defender for us,” said forward Donta Scott, who also took part. “The scene we all put together, it was kind of good, it was nice.”
Morsell didn’t know about his teammates antics until after the fact. He found the whole thing amusing.
“You know me, I don’t really pay attention to that type of stuff. I’m just gonna go out there and compete,” Morsell said. “But I love it. It’s funny. People send it to me and stuff like that. So it’s great.”
Next up, the team parodied an old SportsCenter commercial, dubbed “This is Darryl Morsell.” After scenes of the guard blocking everything in sight, whether it be calls, sports drinks or practice shots from Reese Mona, a campaign button flashed across the screen; “DMO For DPOY.”
Darryl's been... different lately. pic.twitter.com/S2HeGGnDxp— Maryland Basketball (@TerrapinHoops) February 26, 2021
The design was blasted across the team’s social media accounts, as well as those of Smart, Graham and multiple current and former players.
When asked if the campaign buttons were real, Smart jokingly pushed me to ask Ellenby if they could actually be made for the team.
“Because that’d be good for our campaign,” he said. “And me as the president, I think we should really get that message out there and get buttons made. So I’ma talk to him about it.”
The Terps are going to bat for Morsell because that’s what he does for them every day.
Players proudly deem the senior guard as “our warrior” and “the heart and soul of our team.” Of course, some combination of “tough,” “lockdown defender” and “leader” is uttered whenever his name comes up.
Eric Ayala says he feels an extra level of comfort when Morsell is on the court alongside him. Head coach Mark Turgeon says the senior guard is an extension of him on the floor, praising his feel for the game and even admitting that Morsell sometimes helps the coaching staff see certain things that they might not spot over the course of a game.
The senior doesn’t rank high in the conference in steals or blocks, the kind of flashy stats that are usually the baseline for defensive awards, but there aren’t many that can straight up guard and shut down opposing players like he does. Simply put, playing against Morsell is not fun. He’s been the driving force behind the Terps’ defensive identity.
Morsell has put everything he has on the court this season, battling through a facial fracture that had him in a protective mask and a shoulder injury to help his team. He came back earlier than expected with both injuries, including less than 10 minutes after nearly dislocating the shoulder against Rutgers.
It was unclear if he would be able to take part in the following game against Michigan State, but Morsell insisted. “Coach, don’t worry about me. I’m mentally tough. I’ll be in good enough shape to play,” Turgeon recalled Morsell telling him before the contest.
He then played a crucial role, per usual, for the Maryland defense, which completely stopped any efforts from the Spartans in the dominant victory. And he also scored 11 points, including a personal 5-0 run to start the game, along with a steal, block, three assists and three rebounds.
Ayala doesn’t understand why the award is even up for debate; he thinks his teammate is the obvious pick.
“I’m speechless when it’s come to that because it’s kind of self explanatory,” Ayala said. “You’ve seen Darryl over the years, you just see the passion and emotion he plays with, how hard he works, you know, his character is through the roof. And he deserves everything, so I’m definitely rooting for him for that Defensive Player of the Year.”
Much of why his teammates and coaches are vocalizing support goes beyond his play in games though. Morsell has developed into a key leader for the team over the past two seasons, playing an especially important role in helping freshmen like Smart and Graham adapt to the college game.
In addition to guiding those younger players through the defense, Turgeon said Morsell serves as a key cog between them and the coaches. In the locker room, they’ll come to him to ask why the head coach wasn’t pleased with a certain thing they did in practice, to which the senior will gladly explain and use it as a teaching moment. “He’s always talking to me and always trying to help me as a player,” Smart said.
And Turgeon said it was Morsell that helped the team bounce back from its losing skid to start Big Ten play.
“There’s a reason we’ve gotten better, because Darryl was just, he wasn’t looking at 1-5, 2-6, 3-7, 4-9, he was looking at each day making our team better,” Turgeon said. “And then finally it kind of clicked for us to start playing at our best level so far.”
The Terps reverted back to their old inconsistent ways in a classic trap game against Northwestern Wednesday night, snapping a five-game win streak that locked the team into the NCAA Tournament. Though they held the Wildcats to 60 points and 36.4% shooting, the same energy and effort shown in recent games wasn’t there, especially when it came to controlling the ball and defending beyond the arc.
But if there’s anyone to get Maryland back on track for the last game of the season against Penn State on Sunday, it’s Morsell. It’s for the same reason that his teammates are dead set on pushing for him to earn recognition from the conference.
“He definitely gonna fight for us. You know, through my time here with him, he’s gonna do whatever it takes for us to win,” said Ayala last month. “And he’s the heart and soul of our team, you know, his energy, it rubs off on everybody.”