As a freshman at Mount Saint Joseph, Darryl Morsell was indoctrinated early on to the role of defensive stopper. At practice every day, Morsell had to guard two older teammates headed to play major college basketball.
The two — Phil Booth Jr., now a fifth-year senior and two-time national champion at Villanova, and Jaylen Adams, who graduated last year from St. Bonaventure and is now a rookie with the Atlanta Hawks — were seniors during Morsell’s first high school season. It helped Morsell develop a reputation for being a tough-minded, physical defender.
It was something Duane Morsell had been preaching to his son for years.
“When I was little, I used to play up [in age], I used to shoot the ball all the time,” Morsell recalled after a practice earlier this month. “My father would always tell me, ‘You got to play defense. You got to play defense.’
“I didn’t really believe him until eighth, ninth grade when I got to Mount Saint Joe and I used to guard the good players in practice. It made me competitive. It made me what I needed to become a great defender.”
It’s a role he has embraced since coming to Maryland last year, one that has continued to grow this season as he has added muscle to his 6-foot-5, 200-pound body and maturity to his game.
It has served the Terps well, in particular Anthony Cowan Jr., allowing the junior point guard, an All-Big Ten defender a year ago, to spend more time scoring and facilitating for others and not getting so fatigued chasing the opposing team’s top guards.
“It’s huge for us, because we were asking Anthony to do it and it was too much on Anthony’s plate,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said recently.
Turgeon had to remind Morsell about that early in the season. After Morsell had some defensive lapses in the team’s opening game against Delaware, he put Morsell on the bench for the start of Maryland’s next game, at Navy in the Veterans Classic.
Morsell responded well, not only with his defense, but also adding a season-high 15 points.
“I just wasn’t doing what I was supposed to do, and I wasn’t doing what [Turgeon] wanted me to do,” Morsell said of his performance against Delaware. “So he did what he was supposed to do. [He] coached me and disciplined me.”
Though he has not stopped or even slowed down every player he has guarded this season, Morsell has certainly won his share of battles and has helped the Terps continue as one of the Big Ten’s top teams in field-goal defense.
During the Big Ten season, it has been against the likes of Penn State’s Josh Reaves (7-for-18 overall, 3-for-8 on 3-pointers, 17 points, five turnovers), Purdue’s Carsen Edwards (4-for-15, 3-for-9, 20 points) and Wisconsin’s Brad Davison (4-for-13, 2-for-6, 11 points).
In a season during which Morsell has had to try to contain some of the Big Ten’s leading scorers — aside from Edwards, Indiana’s Romeo Langford and Nebraska’s James Palmer Jr. — Morsell will have a major responsibility Monday night.
When the No. 19 Terps take the court at the Breslin Center in East Lansing against No. 6 Michigan State, Morsell he will likely be part of the effort trying to slow perhaps the Big Ten’s top point guard in junior Cassius Winston, who averages a team-best 18.2 points a game.
Asked what it means to be asked to be a defensive stopper for the suddenly hot and relevant Terps, who have won seven straight games, Morsell said: “It just shows that Coach trusts me to put me on the other team's best player. He trusts me; my teammates trust me. It impacts me and makes me play harder.”
In a conference call Sunday, Turgeon intimated that Cowan would likely start on Winston, but that others, including Morsell, would certainly get a turn trying to slow down the Big Ten’s fourth-leading scorer and leader in assists (7.3 per game).
“We’ll try different guys on him,” Turgeon said. “Cassius is good in ball screens, good in transition, good coming off screens. They put in a lot of action, kind of like we are with Anthony. But Anthony’s a good a defender, and he’ll take on the challenge. … Darryl will have him some, too. No doubt about it. … Darryl’s guarded all types, so he’s ready for it.”
What Duane Morsell told his son as he started to get serious about basketball was that defense would only be part of his repertoire, and his growing reputation. What the elder Morsell really talked about was becoming a versatile player.
“I told him the more you can do to help your team win, the better chance you have to stay on the court,” the elder Morsell said Saturday, as he and his wife, Carolyn, waited to fly back to Baltimore after Friday night’s 75-61 victory at Ohio State.
Against the Buckeyes, the younger Morsell had what Turgeon called “maybe Darryl’s best game of the season.”
Morsell finished with 11 points on 5-for-9 from the field — including a big 3-pointer coming out of a timeout after the Buckeyes had cut what had been a seven-point halftime lead to one with six quick points — as well as two rebounds, two steals and one assist.
“It really helps a lot [when Morsell is looking to score], because we already know what we’re going to get from him defensively,” Cowan said Friday in Columbus. “When he brings it offensively, I think it makes us that much better a team.”
Used primarily as a wing or forward, Morsell had even run some point at Value City Arena when freshman Eric Ayala Jr. left the game with a hip injury a little more than seven minutes into the second half.
After being used in numerous positions last season — basically everything but center — Morsell has played primarily as a wing during his sophomore year.
“It helps me get out on breaks,” said Morsell, who despite improving his outside shot and 3-point accuracy, is still better going downhill toward the basket. “It’s just natural for me. That’s what I’ve always done my whole life and I just feel more comfortable.”
While his scoring remains about the same (8.4 points a game this season compared with 8.7 last year) despite with the addition of five freshmen, including former high school teammate Jalen Smith, Morsell’s overall game has become more efficient.
His field-goal percentage and 3-point shooting have improved — from 42.4 to 48.5 overall, including going up from making three of 25 3-pointers to seven of 29 — while he has also managed to cut down a little on his turnovers.
“He’s not shooting jump shots all the time. He’s driving the ball, he’s making good decision, he’s taking what the defense is giving him,” Turgeon said. “He’s making the best play for our team, and he’s really grown up a lot. He’s settled into a nice role. He knows what we need out of him.”