Two years ago, Maryland had to wait until the next-to-last of the 68 teams selected in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament field was announced to find out where it was going and who the Terps were going to face in the Round of 64.
Seeded sixth, Maryland seemed to have a favorable draw for itself and a great destination for its fans when the Terps were sent to Orlando, Fla., to play 11th-seeded Xavier, which had struggled down the stretch of the regular season.
After a 76-65 defeat to a Musketeers team that would advance to the Elite Eight, it proved to be a short trip for Mark Turgeon’s team and a long weekend — albeit it in a sunnier, warmer place — for the fans who followed the Terps to Florida.
Will this year be different?
Maryland is again going to the Sunshine State as a sixth seed, this time to Jacksonville. On Thursday afternoon, the Terps (22-10, 13-7 Big Ten) will face the winner of Tuesday night’s play-in game between 11th seeds Temple and Belmont in Dayton, Ohio, which will start after the conclusion of a 6:40 p.m. game.
If Maryland wins its tournament opener, the Terps would play the winner of third-seeded LSU and 14th-seeded Yale for a chance to return home for the East Regional, where second-seeded Michigan State and top-seeded Duke could be waiting at Capital One Arena in Washington.
The Terps’ game Thursday starts shortly after the conclusion of the 12:40 p.m. LSU-Yale game. Both games will be on truTV.
Before diving into scouting reports on his possible Round of 64 opponent, Turgeon said he was thinking more about last year as he gathered with his team at Xfinity Center on Sunday night to watch the NCAA tournament selection show. This time, the Terps were among the first teams to hear their name called.
“Obviously this is a great day,” Turgeon said. “We’re sitting here a year ago, 19-13, begging to be in the NIT. Lost a lot of players, lost Kevin Huerter [who left for the NBA], have five freshmen in our rotation [this season]. We’re really proud of what we accomplished this year to this point, in a great league, with a difficult schedule.
“To see your name pop up on Selection Sunday was great. If you had been in the room, you would have seen pure joy and excitement on these guys’ faces. We’re super excited, get to stay on the East Coast, head down to Jacksonville, where the weather will be warm. We’re looking forward to it. … We started a new season today, talked about, we’re fired up to do well in the tournament.”
Asked whether there was a difference Sunday hearing his team’s name mentioned quickly, Turgeon chuckled.
“I think the seed showed they really respected our league and what we accomplished this year to remain a 6 [seed],” he said. “We were relaxed. Just being in the room, I love being a coach, but there’s a lot that comes with it. But to be in that room, to watch these guys when their name came up, oh, my gosh, I wouldn’t trade that moment for all the criticism that we take. It was an amazing moment and a lot of fun.”
It marks the fourth time in the past five years that the Terps have gone to the NCAA tournament. After making the Round of 32 in 2015 before losing to West Virginia in Columbus, Ohio, Maryland beat a pair of double-digit seeds in Spokane, Wash., before losing to top-seeded Kansas, Turgeon’s alma mater, in Louisville, Ky.
It will also mark the first time in the NCAA tournament for seven of the nine players in Maryland’s regular rotation: five freshmen as well as sophomores Bruno Fernando and Darryl Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph). Junior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. and redshirt senior forward Ivan Bender are the only Terps with NCAA tournament experience.
“Just by missing it one year, it definitely brings you a lot of joy and not get complacent, knowing that you did something worth getting into the tournament,” Cowan said Sunday. “That’s the message I’m going to try to display to my teammates. Now it’s the excitement, just being ready to play.”
Fernando, who is coming off a season-low three-point performance in Thursday’s disappointing 69-61 loss to No. 13 seed Nebraska in the second round of the Big Ten tournament in Chicago, said he looks forward to playing a team that has never faced the Terps before.
“Going from the regular season to the Big Ten tournament, like Coach said, it’s kind of like you’re playing teams you’ve already played twice and they kind of know everything about our system,” Fernando said.
“Now we’re going to play a team we don’t know much about them and they don’t much about us. It’s going to be a completely different game and we’ll get a chance to do a lot of things we’re not able to do [in the Big Ten].”
Turgeon was asked how different the NCAA tournament is from the Big Ten tournament.
“The Big Ten going to the tournament is like going to the dentist office, you’ve already played them a couple of times and you’ve got to play them again,” Turgeon said. “They know every play [Maryland runs], that type of thing. This is lose and you go home type deal. ...
“I can tell by our team meeting today, and our practice today, our guys truly believe this is a new season and we’ve done some amazing things. The grind is over and now the fun begins. It kind of showed the way our guys handled today.”
With three defeats in their past four games, the Terps are aware many might think they’ll be one of the teams that could get upset by a double-digit seed, as they were two years ago in Orlando as well as at the Big Ten tournament.
Asked whether the team has an us-against-the-world approach to the NCAA tournament, Cowan said: “I would say more of a chip on our shoulder more than anything. Me personally, I haven’t won a postseason game. That’s just been my motivation, honestly the whole year. Now that I’m there, take advantage of the opportunity.”
Said Turgeon: “Everybody gets criticized in today’s world. Our president gets killed [by critics] every day. Everybody’s getting criticized. Democrats. Republicans. This coach, that coach. This guy runs a business. We live in the public. It’s changed. It’s the way it is.
“To have the fourth-youngest team [in the country] and the eighth-hardest schedule, we did some amazing things. So I don’t need anyone telling us what we did. We did some amazing things. I know what we did this year. We’re looking forward to postseason.”