JACKSONVILLE, FLA. — The dream of many Maryland men’s basketball fans — playing Duke again — lives.
With their first postseason victory in three years, the Terps are two wins away from a possible matchup with the Blue Devils in next week’s Elite Eight at Capital One Arena in Washington.
While most assume that Duke, the top-rated team of the 68 in this year’s NCAA tournament field, will get that far, many didn’t believe that Maryland, the No. 6 seed in the East Region, would get this far.
Many didn’t think the Terps would get past the Bruins after the way they played down the stretch, with three losses in their last four games, including a 69-61 defeat to No. 13 seed Nebraska in the second round of the Big Ten tournament in Chicago.
“Well, obviously we didn’t play well in our last game, so we’ve been pretty motivated practice-wise, and then everybody was predicting that we’d lose and that motivates you a little bit,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said Thursday.
“It’s not fair to Belmont that people that don’t know a lot about basketball are picking them to beat us. So we were highly motivated, so this time of year, you lose, you go home, so you stick together.”
Here are three takeaways from Maryland’s 79-77 win over Belmont:
1. Darryl Morsell’s toughness was contagious, especially on Jalen Smith.
There have been more than a few games this year when the Terps seemed to fold after losing leads in the second half. There have also been more than a few games when their freshman forward has been completely invisible.
On both accounts, Thursday’s game against Belmont wasn’t one of them.
While Smith was certainly the marquee performer in Maryland’s first postseason win since the Terps beat Hawaii in the Round of 32 of the 2016 NCAA tournament in Spokane, Wash., Morsell should share the top billing.
In matching his career high of 18 points, which he first set as a freshman last season against Gardner-Webb, Morsell made six of 10 shots from the field and shot 5-for-7 from the free-throw line.
Most of his points came when the 6-foot-5, 200-pound guard was going downhill toward the basket, though he did hit a big 3-pointer from the left wing during Maryland’s comeback from a 67-60 deficit.
But aside from the offense and the fact that he eventually hounded Belmont star Dylan Windler into at least one key miss late in the game, what Morsell gave Maryland was some bravado.
It was reminiscent of the way Dez Wells played in many big games during his three years in College Park. His teammates, Smith in particular, seemed to feed off Morsell.
Having spent most of the season in his role as a defensive stopper, Morsell is playing his best offensively in recent weeks, scoring in double figures in five of the past six games.
More importantly, he has made just one turnover in his past four games to go along with 14 assists to give Turgeon another ball-handler and playmaker aside from guards Anthony Cowan Jr. and Eric Ayala.
2. Maryland can’t afford any more 3-for-18 shooting performances from Cowan.
Going into the NCAA tournament, many Maryland fans questioned Turgeon’s allegiance to his team’s most experienced player. Despite the win Thursday, some of those same questions remain.
While Turgeon went out of his way to credit Cowan with having six assists to only one turnover and playing good defense on Belmont guard Kevin McCLain, especially in the second half, the enigmatic Cowan could have easily cost Maryland the game.
Cowan has the same approach that his predecessor, Melo Trimble, had during his three seasons at Maryland. Even when he was ice-cold, Trimble believed the next shot was going in.
Only one problem: some inside the program thought that Trimble regressed his last two seasons because he got selfish, or at least more focused on being a scorer rather than a true point guard.
The dynamic between Cowan and Ayala is different than it was when Trimble was a junior and Cowan a freshman, mainly because Ayala is 20 — two years older than Cowan was as a freshman — and way more mature.
A longtime college basketball analyst told me before the regular season ended that the Terps would only go as far as Cowan would lead them. If that was the case, they would be going home rather than playing LSU on Saturday.
Cowan is too good — and too smart — to not recognize his deficiencies and realize that he has far more scoring options, especially inside, than Trimble ever did and he needs to trust his teammates more.
Turgeon, too, needs to make sure that Cowan, if he’s not shooting well, looks to be more of a facilitator. While he has always been closer to Purdue's Carsen Edwards in the way he plays than Michigan State’s Cassius Winston or Michigan’s Zavier Simpson, he needs to go in that direction sooner rather than later.
For Maryland to keep playing, Cowan needs to use his teammates more and shoot less if he continues to struggle, especially from the outside. He did a better job attacking Belmont, something that’s going to be more difficult to do the rest of the way.
3. Even with the victory, the pressure is not completely off Turgeon.
No matter how much he tried to downplay it, Thursday’s win was huge for Turgeon in terms of trying to win back the fan base. A win over a higher seed Saturday will certainly help accomplish that, but it might take two more to really make progress.
In the eyes of those who have basically moved on, only beating Duke — which seems almost absurd to even consider since the last time Maryland won at least three straight games came when the Terps won seven in a row in January, with their best win over then-No. 22 Indiana.
Still, Turgeon deserves some credit if the Terps can win Saturday. Getting a team with five freshmen in the rotation to the Sweet 16 might not be considered a huge accomplishment at programs such as Kentucky and Duke, but it will likely be the highlight of Turgeon’s coaching career.
While LSU will be considered the favorite going into the Round of 32, the Tigers are certainly vulnerable with the chaos surrounding suspended coach Will Wade and the ongoing mess in Baton Rouge about recruiting violations.
Watching the Tigers escape 14th-seed Yale in the first game Thursday, they are much like the Terps in that they have a lot of physical talent and often make questionable decisions.
If Maryland can keep it close going down the stretch Saturday, the victory over Belmont should help them against the Tigers. While the Terps are not talking yet about going back to play in D.C., it has to be a motivating factor.
What also should help push them is the affection the players have for Turgeon. While some skeptics might say they should love to play for him because he’s not an in-your-face coach, it goes beyond that. They know the scrutiny he faces and want to silence the doubters.