Maryland's men's basketball coach Mark Turgeon and senior guard Darryl Morsell talks about the team celebration after being selected for the NCAA tournament.
The Maryland men’s basketball team is back in the NCAA tournament after the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of March Madness last year.
The Terps, seeded No. 10 in the East Region, will play seventh-seeded Connecticut on Saturday. Tipoff is scheduled for 7:10 p.m. at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Indiana, and the game will be broadcast on CBS.
While the entirety of the 68-team field is being played in Indianapolis and surrounding cities because of the pandemic, the NCAA elected to keep its location descriptions for each region. Michigan, which defeated Maryland in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals, is the No. 1 seed in the East.
Should Maryland (16-13, 10-12 Big Ten) win, it would play the winner of the No. 2 seed Alabama-No. 15 seed Iona game for the chance to make its first Sweet Sixteen appearance since the 2015-16 season.
Maryland, which was one of the last teams revealed in the bracket, watched the Selection Show from a hotel ballroom in Indianapolis, where the team has stayed since it arrived for the Big Ten tournament. Coach Mark Turgeon grinned when reminded of his team having to again wait a lengthy period to hear its name called, similar to the 2016-17 season when the Terps were a No. 6 seed.
“It was a little stressful,” Turgeon said Sunday night. “I always felt like we were in. I think when Michigan State came up 11 there, we knew we were in because we’ve beaten them twice. And we’re going into that last [region] and you really could tell, like, ‘We’re going to be a 10, we’re going to play UConn.’ I mean, it was like we were saying that as the bracket came out. ... Maybe because it took so long, the reaction was better. We had a couple guys in tears, they were so happy. It’s been an incredibly amazing year, difficult year, but amazing year. From 4-9 [in conference play] to the NCAA tournament is pretty cool.”
The Terps last played the Huskies (15-7, 12-7 Big East) in the 2015-16 season, a 77-66 Maryland win in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden. Maryland has met UConn twice in postseason play; the Terps defeated the Huskies, 90-82, in the 2002 Elite Eight en route to the program’s lone NCAA championship title, and UConn beat Maryland, 99-89, in the 1995 Sweet Sixteen.
Last year’s Maryland team, led by All-Big Ten players Anthony Cowan Jr. and Jalen Smith (Mount Saint Joseph), was a trendy pick to make the Final Four. But Maryland began the 2020-21 conference schedule on shaky ground, still adjusting to the departure of the all-conference players, along with an exodus of transfers. The Terps started the season 4-9 in conference play but remained optimistic due to Top-25 wins over Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota and Purdue.
Using smaller lineups and relying on a defense that was perhaps the Big Ten’s best over the final month of the season, Maryland won five straight games in February to strengthen its tournament resume. Senior guard Darryl Morsell was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and junior guards Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala were given honorable mention recognition by coaches and media.
Nine Big Ten teams made the tournament; Illinois joined Michigan as a No. 1 seed.
“I think we’re in because of our league, obviously,” Turgeon said. “Our NET [ranking] was really high, our strength of schedule was top 10. Our league had a lot to do with it. Because our league was so good, especially at the top, for us, we had to figure out a way to compete and give ourselves a chance to win. And we really had to change who we were and how we wanted to play to how we had to play to be successful.”
UConn, which finished third in the Big East and lost to Creighton in its conference tournament semifinals, is led by guards James Bouknight and R.J. Cole. Bouknight, who averages a team-high 19 points per game, is a first-team All-Big East selection. Cole averages 12.3 points, which ranks second on the team, but is in concussion protocol after injuring his head against Creighton. His status for Saturday’s game is unknown, but Huskers coach Dan Hurley told reporters that Cole has a mild concussion.
While Turgeon said he doesn’t know much about UConn — which opened as a slight favorite in most sportsbooks — Morsell is well-acquainted.
“All I watch is basketball,” Morsell said. “You ask any of my teammates, they come in my room in College Park, all on my TV is FS1 or Big Ten Network. And the two conferences that’s on there is Big East and Big Ten. I’m familiar with UConn. I know who they have. I played AAU with some of them guys. For sure, I know them.”
This year’s appearance in the NCAA tournament will mark Maryland’s fifth appearance in the past six years under Turgeon and the Terps’ 29th overall. It will also be the return to the postseason for Morsell, Ayala and Wiggins, all of whom played key roles on the 2018-19 team that lost in the final seconds to LSU in the East Region Round of 32.
The Terps have won 13 of their past 14 opening-round games dating to 1997, including their most recent appearance in 2019, when they defeated No. 11 seed Belmont.
Maryland has been a No. 10 seed twice in its history. In the 1993-94 season, the Terps advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, and in the 2008-09 season, they lost in the Round of 32.
“We kept fighting,” Turgeon said. “We have a really great relationship within our team. We’re really close. Our guys love each other. We respect each other and we could have very easily folded our tent. ‘Ah, Hakim [Hart] is playing the point, he came here to be a two, three. Donta [Scott] came here to be a three, four, he’s playing center.’ Everybody could have just been pissed off. But they weren’t. They just competed and fought. And that’s really what I’m most proud of, how we figured out a way for this team to be successful.
“Hopefully, we can get better this week. We’ve been doing it for a long time. We don’t always win but we keep getting better. So hopefully we can get better this week and have a great weekend ahead of us.”