Rarely has a coach whose team finished 22-10 and tied for fifth in a Power 5 conference and who is heading to the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in the past five seasons had to defend himself and his players as much as Maryland’s Mark Turgeon has been forced to do in recent weeks.
Seeded sixth in the East Region, and getting ready to play its Round of 64 game Thursday in Jacksonville, Fla., against the winner of Tuesday night’s play-in game between No. 11 seeds Temple and Belmont, Maryland is 7-7 against the eight Big Ten teams in the field of 68.
The victories include home wins over Big Ten regular season co-champion Purdue, a No. 3 seed in the South, and Wisconsin, a No. 5 seed in the South; a road win at Iowa, a No. 10 seed in the South; as well as sweeps of Minnesota (No. 10 seed in the East) and Ohio State (No. 11 in the Midwest).
A year ago, Maryland was 0-7 against the four Big Ten teams that made the tournament.
Here are three takeaways from the regular season:
1. Just as when the Terps practiced for their trip to Italy last summer, freshman Eric Ayala was the biggest surprise.
It didn’t take long for Mark Turgeon to realize that Ayala was better than advertised coming both out of prep school in Connecticut as well as a post-graduate year at the IMG Academy in Florida. The 6-foot-5 guard from Wilmington, Del., was almost immediately pegged in as a starter.
While Ayala’s scoring and defense fluctuated throughout the season in the Big Ten, he finished the overall regular season as Maryland’s most reliable 3-point shooter (42.2 percent) and as one of its most steady performers, as was the case at the Big Ten tournament when he scored 12 points in last week's opening game loss to No. 13 seed Nebraska.
The biggest issue for Ayala going into the NCAA tournament is how much Turgeon is going to have him run the offense, or share those responsibilities with junior Anthony Cowan Jr. in Maryland’s two-headed point guard approach.
It might be better to free up Cowan to be more of a scorer going forward.
It’s also up to Ayala to stop deferring to Cowan as much as he has over the season. Just as he stepped up as a leader in defending his coach on social media after the Nebraska disaster, the preternaturally mature Ayala, who acts and looks like he’s 20 going on 30, can do the same on the court.
2. If Maryland wants any chance to get to the second weekend, its defense will have to get better.
The Terps were at times among the best defensive teams in the Big Ten this season, right behind Michigan and Michigan State. In league play, Maryland led the Big Ten in defensive rebounding (31.6) and was third in field-goal percentage defense (.391) and fifth in 3-point percentage defense (.310).
But Turgeon’s team is going to have to take it up a notch in the NCAA tournament to survive the first weekend. In recent losses to Penn State, Michigan and Nebraska, the Terps allowed the opposition to dictate the pace of the game.
Teams are going to try to beat Maryland in transition, which has certainly worked for entire games (it started with Michigan State in January) and for key parts of others. Belmont is undoubtedly going to try to do that if it survives its play-in game, as many expect.
Others might, too, if the Terps go further.
Turgeon often has said that his team allows its offense to affect its defense, but if the Terps struggle to make baskets in their halfcourt offense, he might consider ratcheting up the defense with a full or three-quarter press and let the defense get steals and dunks in transition.
3. Aaron Wiggins could be an X-factor if given a bigger role.
The one thing many Maryland fans and those in the media seem to be in agreement on is that the 6-6 freshman wing needs to play more than he has, especially the past four games (about 19 minutes), and also has to get more touches and shots than he has for most of the season.
It’s one thing to play well when the team is clicking with several players hitting shots. It’s another to do it when others are not, and Wiggins has given the Terps a lift in many of its recent losses, including briefly in the loss to the Cornhuskers.
It would be easy to say Wiggins should be getting minutes over sophomore Darryl Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph) since they are about the same size and play a similar position. But some of Morsell’s best performances as a Terp have come in the past three games, including 14 points and five assists Thursday.
Over the three games, Morsell is averaging a shade under 12 points and four assists, with only one turnover total. If Wiggins is going to continue in his role as the sixth man, which appears to be the case, Turgeon will likely have to choose from among Ayala, Cowan and Morsell.
Seniority shouldn’t play a role in that decision, and if Cowan is struggling as he has at times throughout the Big Ten season, he needs to be the one on the bench. It might be hard for Turgeon to do and Cowan to handle, but if Big Ten Player of the Year Cassius Winston can be pulled for messing up, so can Cowan.