Going into this year’s NCAA tournament, there was a widespread feeling among Maryland men’s basketball fans that another promising season had ended on a sour note and that no matter what the Terps did, short of getting to the Sweet 16, would change that perception.
Mark Turgeon’s team fell narrowly short of reaching the second week of the tournament — and a trip home to Washington to play Big Ten regular-season co-champion Michigan State in the East Region semifinal Friday.
But what the Terps did as a sixth-seed in Jacksonville, Fla., by beating 11th-seed Belmont in a heart-stopping 79-77 win Thursday and then losing to third-seed LSU in a heart-wrenching 69-67 defeat Saturday might have helped soften the criticism of the job Turgeon did with this team.
Here are three takeaways from Maryland’s 23-11 season:
By falling behind both Belmont and LSU by double digits in the first half of each NCAA tournament game, the Terps had to speed things up to get more offensive possessions.
The interesting thing is that a team that spent most of the season near the bottom of the country in turnovers per game wound up making a season-low five turnovers against the Bruins.
While they finished with 12 against the Tigers — with six coming in each half — Maryland made only two during a 10-minute stretch when the Terps went from a 46-31 deficit to 57-55 lead.
Not only do Maryland’s perimeter players seem more comfortable pushing the pace, but so do some of their young big men. It’s not a coincidence that freshman forward Jalen Smith had two of his best games in Florida.
Unless Turgeon can find a low-post replacement for sophomore center Bruno Fernando, who is expected to turn pro, he might not have any choice but to play more of an offense that revolves around 3-pointers and fast breaks.
While the element of surprise certainly helped in making Maryland’s zone effective against the Tigers — as it did when it was first unveiled at Minnesota in early January and turned a smaller deficit into a blowout win — it actually might be something Turgeon considers using more often.
Turgeon might also think this way: Jim Boeheim did it at a similar stage of his career, and he went from being thought us as a coach who won more on talent than tactics to a Hall of Famer who is mostly known for winning a national title with Carmelo Anthony and playing a 2-3 zone.
2. The Terps have the emotional leader to replace Fernando, but finding a true floor leader could be a trickier proposition.
If the 6-foot-10 Angolan opts to forgo his his final two years of eligibility, which is expected, Turgeon can probably count on rising junior guard Darryl Morsell and rising sophomore guard Eric Ayala to share the emotional void created by Fernando’s departure.
But having a point guard who can give the Terps what at least two of the Big Ten’s powers, Michigan State and Michigan, have is still a work in progress for Turgeon and his team.
Unless Turgeon decides to move junior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. back into the role he played his first two seasons — including displacing Melo Trimble his freshman year — Turgeon needs to make it clear that Ayala is the lead guard.
Michigan proved that a high-scoring point guard is not a prerequisite for a team’s success, as Zavier Simpson is proving with the Wolverines, and, until this season, Cassius Winston has been with the Spartans.
It became increasingly clear during the season that Cowan struggled, both emotionally and in terms of his role in the offense, while Ayala was more consistent in terms of his play and personality.
It’s hard enough for the typically reserved Cowan — quiet almost to the point of being aloof — to speak up when things are going well, but he tends to go into even more of a shell when things are not.
A lot will depend on the role Cowan plays next season for the Terps.
Both sophomore center Bruno Fernando and freshman forward Jalen Smith said Saturday that they have yet to make up their minds about whether to continue their college careers, though indications are that Saturday's 79-77 loss to LSU in the NCAA tournament Round of 32 was Fernando's last with Terps.
Though there is some thought that a player that earned second-team All-Big Ten honors this season might serve the team better coming off the bench, that is unlikely to happen for the team’s most accomplished rising senior.
Just as Gary Williams kept Terrell Stoglin at the point after Steve Francis arrived, and Tom Izzo kept Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn Jr. at the point after Winston got to East Lansing, Turgeon is loyal to Cowan.
It’s up to Turgeon to figure out a way to get players such as Aaron Wiggins and Serrel Smith Jr., as well incoming wing Donta Scott, the minutes they need to fulfill their potential, even if it means Cowan playing few minutes and a less prominent role.
3. If the Terps want to challenge for supremacy in the Big Ten, Maryland needs to play a more challenging nonconference schedule.
If you listened to Turgeon throughout the season, there was no doubt in in his mind that Maryland played a tough schedule. But much of the fact that the Terps had what was considered the eighth-hardest schedule in the country had to do with the fact that the Big Ten plays 20 games.
Of Maryland’s nonconference schedule, the only opponent that made this year’s NCAA tournament was Virginia, and that game was scheduled by ESPN for the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, not Turgeon.
The Spartans played at Florida on the same day in December that Maryland hosted Loyola Chicago in Baltimore. Michigan State also played Kansas on a neutral court.
Meanwhile, the Wolverines played at Villanova in the Gavitt Games during the same week that the Terps followed their game at Royal Farms Arena with the back end of a Loyola doubleheader, with Baltimore’s Greyhounds.
The excuse for not potentially overscheduling this season — having five freshmen in the rotation, including Jalen Smith and Ayala in the starting lineup — is no longer valid next season.
It will also help start building back a fan base that stopped going to many of the team’s nonconference games because a lack of competitiveness and then didn’t sell out the Xfinity Center until Michigan arrived late in the season.
But scheduling at least one good nonconference home game in a season in which the Terps will likely go on the road for the ACC-Big Ten Challenge should be a must. It might even get the students to fill up the wall more than a couple of times.