Maryland men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon met with his players in the aftermath of the team’s 55-50 loss at Penn State on Feb. 5. It was a disappointing defeat in a winnable game for a squad that had at that point failed to string together a pair of conference wins.
“We decided we had to make a lot of changes,” Turgeon said.
Three days later, the Terps faced No. 4 Ohio State at Xfinity Center and began the game with a promising start before suffering an eight-point loss. Turgeon was undeterred.
“I told them after the Ohio State game, if not for the day, for the whole week as we prepared for Minnesota, I was like, ‘The best is yet to come, the best is yet to come,’” he said. “You’ve got to believe it. If you don’t believe it, it’s not going to come.’ And I still think there are better days ahead for this team.”
After Maryland’s fourth straight victory in eight days, Turgeon’s declaration might be correct. Here are three takeaways from the Terps’ 68-59 win at Rutgers on Sunday.
Maryland’s biggest area of growth has been on defense, and it showed again.
If there was any game that truly showed Maryland’s progression over this unique season, it was Sunday’s game in Piscataway, New Jersey. Two months ago, the Terps were out of sync on defense, struggling with the Scarlet Knights’ ball screens and movement as they allowed 47 points in the second half and 70 total in a 14-point loss.
On Sunday afternoon, Maryland held Rutgers to its fewest points in any half this season (20) and 59 total, the fifth time in the past seven games the Terps have held an opponent to 60 points or fewer.
“We work on it every day,” Turgeon said. “We’re doing the same drills, we’re working on it and the guys have bought into it. And they knew that for us to win this game, we had to be great defensively. But the kicker is, we’re getting better offensively.”
The Terps’ effort and improvement on defense have been remarkable. Since an early February analysis of the team, Maryland’s defensive efficiency has risen from 11th in the Big Ten Conference to fifth, according to KenPom. Turgeon and his coaching staff have been completely invested in the defensive end. Throughout games, Turgeon and his assistant coaches are meticulously yelling out orders to players, whether to raise their hands in a zone defense, rotate or box out. And it carries onto the court, where defensive communication — verbal and nonverbal — has improved, allowing the players to work as a cohesive unit.
On a late first-half defensive possession, senior guard Darryl Morsell slid to junior forward Jairus Hamilton and nudged him to indicate that he should move closer to his defender.
“Our guys are dialed into our rotations,” Turgeon said. “We know how we have to play, we call it ‘Maryland defense.’ And we’re not always great at it, but we’re pretty good. And if we just keep getting better, keep getting our rotations better, keep playing with that toughness that we played with today, you know, better days are ahead hopefully for this team.”
Darryl Morsell had the quintessential “Darryl Morsell Game.”
It was after the first Rutgers game Turgeon revealed that Morsell, who had shot 3-for-13 in the outing, was being bothered by a shoulder injury dating to the preseason.
Morsell didn’t say much about the injury afterward and faced a more severe injury when he fractured a bone in his face on New Year’s Eve, forcing him to miss one game. The Mount Saint Joseph graduate’s shoulder injury resurfaced Sunday, as he dealt with instability in the first half but got it popped back in and quickly returned to the game.
While sporting a wrap around his shoulder, he provided perhaps the biggest sequence of the game. After Rutgers cut Maryland’s lead to six in the second half, he drove into the lane, got two defenders in the air with a pump fake then laid the ball into the basket with his right hand. On Rutgers’ following possession, he took off running after a deflection by Hamilton and got a transition dunk. The four straight points sparked a 6-0 run that pushed the Terps’ lead back to 12 and allowed Maryland to regain the momentum.
Morsell aggravated the injury with about four minutes in the game and Turgeon held the senior leader out as a precaution. But he had already left his mark in a game that the Terps needed to win to boost their NCAA tournament hopes.
“We started him on [Ron] Harper [Jr.],” who had six points on 1-for-6 shooting, “and then [Jacob] Young got going, so we pushed him over to Young and then Young wasn’t scoring anymore,” Turgeon said. “He’s just special like that, he guards, he guards, he guards.”
“He’s the heart and soul of our team, his energy, it rubs off on everybody,” junior guard Eric Ayala said. “When he was going down, I wanted to reiterate that we’ve got to play hard. He’s on the sideline, he’s still out there helping us. And the impact he has on the game is significant. When he went out, I was telling him, ‘Get that together and come back in the game.’ So, I know how important he is, we all know how important he is, so hopefully, he hurries up and gets back.”
Maryland isn’t locked into the NCAA tournament yet, but its path is pretty straightforward.
After the Terps lost to Ohio State, a second straight defeat that dropped them to 4-9 in Big Ten standings, many bracket projections had them on the wrong side of the bubble. Maryland’s three wins, against Minnesota and then a sweep of Nebraska, were encouraging but only slightly moved the needle for a polarizing team.
With Sunday’s win over Rutgers, the Terps (14-10, 8-9) have five Quad 1 wins. Only eight teams have more such wins this season. After the victory, Andy Katz, a college basketball analyst for the Big Ten Network, emphatically declared that Maryland was “going to the tournament, I think, safely in.”
Maryland still isn’t a lock to make the tournament, but with its statement win over Rutgers, it can look forward to a final three-game stretch in which it faces three of the bottom-four teams in the conference. If the Terps can continue their winning streak and stack victories in games in which they will likely be favored — Maryland has only lost one game to a team in Quad 2, 3 or 4 this season — they likely will enter the conference tournament with a convincing resume and save themselves from a nerve-wracking afternoon on Selection Sunday.
“Today really changes a lot,” Turgeon said, “because we beat a really, really good team that’s been playing well in their building and they were ready for us. It was one of those games we knew we were going to have to play well to beat them. So it’s just the maturation of our team.”