The 2019-20 Maryland men’s basketball team couldn’t have experienced a more bittersweet conclusion to its season.
On March 8, the team stood triumphantly on the Xfinity Center court, celebrating its share of the Big Ten regular-season title, the first since the program moved to the conference. A battle-tested team in perhaps the nation’s top league spoke optimistically about a deep run in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.
By March 12, the Terps learned that the conference tournament, set to take place in Indianapolis, had been canceled. The NCAA shortly followed in shuttering its tournament, bringing Maryland’s season to a screeching halt.
Eight months later — with the departure of two All-Big Ten players, the exodus and influx of several transfers and the welcoming of an unheralded recruiting class — coach Mark Turgeon leads a group that doesn’t view this season as a reset, even as it enters with less fanfare than previous years.
The most pressing concern for Turgeon remains to find suitable replacements for guard Anthony Cowan Jr. and forward Jalen Smith (Mount Saint Joseph), the frontcourt-backcourt duo whose All-Big Ten seasons led Maryland to a conference title.
Cowan, who started every game of his four-year career, and Smith, expected to be selected in the first round of next week’s NBA draft, combined to average nearly 32 points, 15 rebounds and six assists.
“You can’t replace two individuals like that,” senior Darryl Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph) said Tuesday. “Two, in my opinion, All-Americans, two first-team All-Big Ten guys, we can’t really replace that. But what I do know is we’ve got some guys who know how to win, who do know how to play the right way and that’s ready to step up and have bigger roles within this team.”
Cowan’s graduation leaves a massive void in the backcourt, but Maryland returns a trio of upperclassmen guards who will lead this year’s team.
Junior Eric Ayala has shared ball-handling duties over the past two seasons, while Morsell, often referred to as the team’s “glue guy,” has seen an increased role every year. Junior Aaron Wiggins, the reigning Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year, could return to a starting role with the team needing his scoring prowess.
Sophomore Hakim Hart struggled to find a spot in Turgeon’s tight rotation early last season but gained the confidence of the coaching staff later on. Turgeon sees potential in Hart’s shooting ability and length.
“We’ll be a different team than we’ve been in the past,” Turgeon said. “Melo [Trimble] left, we figured it out. And now Anthony’s left, we’ve got to figure it out again. I have confidence in our backcourt that we’ve got really good players that are going to do a great job for us.”
The team’s pair of three-star freshmen, both guards, could also provide an early impact: Marcus Dockery from Washington and Aquan Smart of Evanston, Illinois.
Dockery, a bit undersized and more of a combo guard, has drawn comparisons to Cowan with his quickness and ability to score, while Turgeon lauded Smart’s length and projected him as a potential All-Big Ten defender in the years to come.
“The two of them complement each other’s game so well,” Wiggins said.
The Terps' frontcourt, scrutinized throughout last season as Smith and sophomore Donta Scott logged high minutes, will be under the same microscope with Smith no longer in the lineup.
The team lost the Mitchell twins to a midseason transfer, and then Ricky Lindo Jr. and Joshua Tomaic after the season. But Maryland landed 6-foot-9 senior Galin Smith (Alabama) and 6-foot-8 junior Jairus Hamilton (Boston College), bringing in much-needed size and experience via the transfer portal. The team also welcomed Arnaud Revaz, a 6-foot-10 freshman from Switzerland.
Turgeon also expects Scott, who started 21 games as a freshman, to take another step in his development.
The most intrigue, however, comes from sophomore center Chol Marial, a one-time four-star recruit who played sparingly last year after returning from surgery to heal a stress fracture in both legs, an injury that had kept him off the court for the better part of two years.
Video surfaced during the summer of the 7-foot-2 Marial in an open gym, hitting 3-pointers and running the court effortlessly, a stark contrast from the player who looked tentative as he returned to competitive play in 2019 but was never fully healthy.
Turgeon said the coaching staff lost crucial time to work with Marial in the spring and summer but he worked hard back home in Phoenix, lifting weights and conducting other workouts. A year removed from surgery, Turgeon said Marial is almost pain-free in his legs.
“He’s starting to look like the Chol that I remember coming out of high school a few years ago,” Turgeon said.
The season, though, will be played under the scope of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been unforgiving to college football. The pandemic cut into weeks of workouts and the team experienced its own coronavirus scare in the summer.
Turgeon revealed that multiple players contracted COVID-19 in late August after a player returned to College Park from home and the virus “kind of went around our team a little bit.”
Turgeon said the team missed “a few weeks of practice” — one player was out for close to a month — but added that the team is “in the clear now and hopefully we can do our best to stay that way.”
The team is now being tested for COVID-19 six days a week, Turgeon said.
The Big Ten has yet to release an official schedule but Maryland will play a truncated nonconference schedule beginning in late November before it enters what looks to be another difficult conference slate. Seven Big Ten teams were ranked in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll. The Terps didn’t receive a vote.
After a year of being ranked in the Top 25 — the Terps rose as high as No. 3 in early December — Wiggins chuckled at the idea of being “under the radar.” Morsell spoke of “unfinished business,” a perhaps odd mantra for a team without its top-two standouts from the previous season.
The 2020 Terps won’t feature the star power that led many to view them as a national title contender last season but Turgeon sees a well-rounded mixture that could still remain competitive after a historic finish.
“I think you’ll see a really well-balanced basketball team this year,” Turgeon said. “That’s the way it’s been looking in practice every day. Every day there’s a different kid that steps up, or two that steps up and does a nice job. So that’s a good feeling as a coach when you have balance, and I think that’ll help us be successful.”
Nov. 25, time TBD