Jacksonville, Fla. — When Maryland lost to Kansas three years ago in its first NCAA tournament Sweet 16 appearance since 2003, Mark Turgeon knew that a majority of his starting lineup would not be back in College Park the following season.
A year later, when the Terps lost to Xavier in its first opening-round exit since 1997, Turgeon knew that star point guard Melo Trimble’s college career was coming to an end.
In each case, Turgeon understood that he would not be reloading as much as he would be rebuilding.
As tough as this season’s ending still might be for Turgeon and his players, that’s what makes Maryland’s 69-67 loss to LSU in the Round of 32 on Saturday at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena more palatable and more promising.
Though sophomore center Bruno Fernando is expected to leave for the NBA, the other four starters, including second-team All-Big Ten guard Anthony Cowan Jr., and three freshmen reserves should be back for the 2019-2020 season.
Given where the Terps were a year ago, when they saw a disappointing 19-13 season end with a second-round loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament, Turgeon knows how much better positioned his program is now.
“I never think my program is in bad shape, that’s just my opinion,” Turgeon said after the Terps lost on a last-second layup by LSU’s Tremont Waters. “I always think we’re in good shape.
“I always think we’re going to win the next game, I’m going to get the next player. We’ve done some pretty good things. We’d like to do better, but I think we’re in great shape.”
What the Terps did in their two NCAA tournament games should also help take some of the heat off Turgeon after another late-season fade, including a loss to 13th-seed Nebraska in this year’s Big Ten tournament.
While his critics will still point to the slow starts against Belmont and LSU that resulted in big deficits in the first halves of both games, the sixth-seeded Terps beat the 11th-seeded Bruins and nearly beat the third-seeded Tigers.
The performances of several of his five freshmen — in particular forward Jalen Smith as well as Smith’s former Mount Saint Joseph teammate, sophomore guard Darryl Morsell — should provide some hope.
“It gives me a whole lot of confidence,” said Smith, who averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds in the two tournament games and had a career-high five blocks against LSU.
Added Smith: “Everybody kind of looked down on us going into this tournament and everybody played to the best of their ability. All the freshmen came to play and everybody just gave their best effort to win the game for Coach Turgeon.”
Morsell, who tied his career high with 18 points against Belmont and then helped fuel a second-half comeback against LSU, said the experience of the NCAA tournament and Saturday’s outcome will help.
“As a kid I always grew up watching these type of games, these big-time games, so just to be able to be in it, it's a great feeling,” Morsell said Saturday. “And just to have all these young guys coming back and stuff, it’s going to make us hungrier.”
Said freshman guard Eric Ayala: “A lot of people didn’t think we’d get here. We were in nobody’s preseason Top 25s. All year we were fighting a lot of critics, a lot of people counted us out. Our culture kind of outweighed all that. We believed in ourselves.”
Still, the ending to a 23-11 season was difficult.
Smith sat fighting off tears in the dressing room, and others such as Fernando and freshman forward Ricky Lindo Jr. still seemed dazed. Like his players, Turgeon was emotional afterward.
After leaving the court looking down at the floor and grimacing as he walked, Turgeon choked up in the dressing room, a couple of players said, and told them that they “had made coaching fun again.”
While acknowledging how tough it was to see his freshman year end on a last-second defeat, wing Aaron Wiggins said the roller coaster nature of his first NCAA tournament is something to use as a catalyst moving forward.
“Definitely something to build on,” said Wiggins, who finished with 11 points in 19 minutes Saturday. “Getting that feeling after that first win is something we want to have again.”
Some, including Morsell, were not ready to think about next season. Or even next summer.
“Just to be so close, one possession changed the way the game went, it’s definitely motivating,” he said. “But I’m not really thinking about the off-season quite yet. I'm just trying to keep our guys together. This is our last go-round this year. It’s tough.”
Morsell was asked to look back to the feeling he had sitting in the dressing room at Madison Square Garden after last year’s Big Ten tournament loss to Wisconsin and compare it with the one he had Saturday.
“The feeling I have right now is no comparison to last year,” Morsell said. “Last season was a rough season. It was a season of just failure.”
What the Terps showed Saturday was a resilience and toughness — much of it generated by Morsell — that Maryland was missing in some of its losses this season, especially a 17-point road loss at Penn State last February and the 69-61 defeat to Nebraska.
“For us to get here and for Jalen to hit that big shot in the corner [a 3-pointer to tie the game at 67] and us to go down 15 and Coach Turgeon to get a [technical foul] and us to keep fighting with the youngest team in the country is a different feeling,” Morsell said.
Told that Smith was blaming himself for the defeat because he missed several critical free throws and did not stop Waters on the game-winning basket, Morsell sounded as much like a big brother as a supportive teammate.
“He’s going to blame it on himself for a little while, but he can’t,” Morsell said. “He’ll grow from it, he’ll learn from it. I think we all will. He’s a tough kid. I’ll talk to him and I’ll try to keep him up. But he did all he could do. He played his heart out. I’m proud of him.”
It will be more than two months before Maryland will return for summer workouts.
There the Terps are expected to be joined by a recruiting class that includes three-star wing Donta Scott (6 feet 7), from Philadelphia, four-star prospect Makhi Mitchell, a 6-9 center from Washington, as well as Mitchell’s twin brother Makhel, a three-star recruit.
Based on how Turgeon has recruited in the past, it is likely the Terps will try to add a graduate transfer, probably another big man to help offset the expected departure of Fernando. Sources said that process has already begun.
“We’ve recruited pretty well, some things will happen in the spring that will add some pieces, you know, and we’ll get even better,” Turgeon said. “So I’m looking forward to coaching this group again next season.”
Leave it to the preternaturally mature Ayala, who has emerged as one of the team’s most important players and will play more of a leadership role next season, to sum up the feeling of his teammates and coaches.
“College basketball can get you real high and it can get you real low,” Ayala said. “We know how it feels to win and we know how it feels to lose and I wouldn't want to feel this again.”