Maryland men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon found one way to not make his team’s two-game losing streak the focal point going into Sunday’s game against Bryant at Xfinity Center.
Instead of the back-to-back losses at Penn State and against Seton Hall in Newark, New Jersey, most of the attention was being focused on Friday’s sudden departure of freshmen twins Makhi and Makhel Mitchell.
The team and the 6-foot-10 power forwards from Washington announced in a joint statement that the Mitchells were putting their names into the NCAA transfer portal and were no longer a part of the team.
Though both sides were careful not to criticize the other, it was clear from the wording of Turgeon’s statement and what he reiterated Saturday that the decision was mutual, if not directed by the coach.
“Ultimately, I feel that it’s the best thing for them and it’s the best thing for our program,” Turgeon said after practice. “You get to know people and they’re part of your team, you just wish them the best moving forward. Just feel it was the best decision on that. I’ll leave it at that.”
In their statement released by the team, the Mitchells said, “We want to thank Coach Turgeon for the opportunity to attend the University of Maryland. We are extremely appreciative of our time in College Park, but decided it was best to seek a new opportunity.”
The Mitchells could not be reached for further comment.
Asked if the departure of the Mitchells midway through their freshman year could be a distraction to the players who remain, Turgeon said, “Kids are resilient. Kids are more resilient than we are as adults. They move on.
“There are some guys in that locker room that are really excited that they’re going to get a chance to play — Chol [Marial] and [Joshua] Tomaic. I think that helps. There’s maybe a new energy about us because this is it, this is what we’ve got. You’ve just got to move forward.”
Sophomore guard Eric Ayala acknowledged that such an abrupt roster move could be a distraction “in a way” then quickly noted, “but at the same time, [it’s] next-man-up kind of [mentality]. It’s a business unfortunately. Wishing those guys the best of luck, but we’re all here for a reason. It’s sad, but at the same time we’ve got to continue to keep growing and getting better. It’s about Maryland, it’s not about any individual on our team or in our program.”
The decision comes at the same time that 7-foot-2 freshman center Chol Marial will likely make his college debut. Marial underwent surgery on Sept. 4 to help stress fractures in both of his legs heal properly and resolve a recurring issue with shin splints that has bothered him the past three years by inserting titanium rods in each leg.
Turgeon said that Marial, once among the top three ranked high school players for his class when he was a sophomore at the Cheshire Academy in Connecticut in January of 2017, will play against Bryant after practicing fully for about two weeks.
“He’s a shadow of himself, his shadow is pretty good with his length,” Turgeon said, referring to Marial’s 8-foot wing span. “He’ll be a great rim protector when he starts getting healthy. I’d say Chol is probably 70% of himself, what he was before he was hurt the last couple of years. But we’re excited about Chol coming back.”
Said Marial, “I don’t know how to put it in words, but I’m really excited.”
Along with Marial, Turgeon expects to play little-used fifth-year senior Joshua Tomaic as part of the rotation for the first time since his redshirt sophomore season in 2017-18. Sophomore forward Ricky Lindo Jr., who has averaged 15 minutes off the bench the past two games, also will get more playing time. It is also likely that freshman Donta Scott could continue to start at power forward, with sophomore Jalen Smith at center.
“Donta we’re really comfortable with, we want to play Donta more,” Turgeon said. “He finished the Illinois game, so we have a lot of confidence in him out there. I think Ricky gets a little bit better every game. He’s doing his role, he’s rebounding, he’s had a couple of really good days of practice for us. But I think it really comes down to Josh Tomaic and Chol. They can play the [center] position. We’ll figure it out. We’ve got plenty of players.”
Ayala said the team has shown “a lot of positive energy” the past couple of days at practice, particularly those whose roles could expand with the departure of the Mitchell brothers, who together were averaging 16.1 minutes while contributing four points, 5.6 rebounds and a little under one block a game.
“Even in practice, Josh, Ricky, Chol, everybody, they’ve been stepping up, playing harder, even better than before,” Ayala said. “Especially Josh. I noticed Josh significantly. He doesn’t get much credit. This past week since Christmas, he’s been playing pretty well.”
Said junior guard Darryl Morsell, “I feel like we’re going to have be a lot more scrappier. We might play some small lineups. I don’t know, that’s up to Coach Turgeon. But if we’re playing small lineups, we’re going to have to be scrappier, find ways to get loose balls. Find ways to rebound the ball. It’s something that I embrace and as a team, we’re certainly going to have to embrace it in order to be successful.”
The announcement regarding the Mitchells came as the 13th-ranked Terps enter a critical point of their season. Along with the two straight losses, Maryland (10-2) has dropped nine spots in the Associated Press Top 25 the past two weeks, and 10 places overall since being ranked as high as No. 3.
After Bryant — an 8-4 team ranked No. 219 in Kenpom.com but capable enough to lose by only two to Rutgers, which beat Seton Hall by 20 – the Terps renew Big Ten play with home games against Indiana on Jan. 4 and No. 2 Ohio State on Jan. 7.
Turgeon said that his team was “re-energized” after he gave his players six days off following the 52-48 loss to Seton Hall at the Prudential Center on Dec. 19 in Newark. Since returning to campus the day after Christmas, the Terps have practiced twice a day.
“I’ve never had [a team take] six days off, we’ve had great practices since we’ve come back, we’re excited about why lies ahead,” Turgeon said. “We’re ready to start playing well and playing to our ability. Are we different? Yeah, we’re a little bit different. But’s it’s an opportunity for people.”
Said Morsell, “The break kind of helped us reflect as individuals, and as a team. ... We just came back fresh, hungry, with a new chip on our shoulder.”
Morsell, who has been one of the team’s best leaders the past two years, said that it almost feels like a new season.
“To me it’s always been two separate seasons — non-conference and conference,” Morsell said. “Coming back, it’s definitely like a new season because we’ve got a lot of conference games coming up. And that’s our goal, to be one of the better teams in our conference.”