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Maryland basketball season ends with potential, just as it began, and more takeaways from shortened campaign

Maryland men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon spoke of a gorilla being lifted off his back. Anthony Cowan Jr. could revel in finally bringing a banner to Xfinity Center. Eric Ayala spoke of adding “more cherries” to the program’s first conference title in a decade.

Then, all of a sudden, those hopes and aspirations were dashed, as the NCAA decided to cancel it’s men’s and women’s basketball tournaments to curtail the spread of the novel coronavirus.

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Before Thursday’s news broke, Maryland players and coaches anticipated spending this time making preparations to travel to their assigned region for March Madness and scouting their first-round opponent.

After the COVID-19 pandemic halted the college basketball season, here are three takeaways from the Maryland men’s basketball team’s 2019-20 season:

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Maryland’s season began with top-10 potential and unfortunately ends with Final Four potential.

The Terps entered the 2019 season ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press Top 25 poll. They had all the makings of a Final Four team: A senior guard heading the team in Anthony Cowan Jr. A skilled two-way big in sophomore forward Jalen Smith. Depth and experience at every position.

Maryland spent the majority of the season ranked in the top half of the AP poll, courtesy of a nine-game winning streak in the middle of its conference slate. The Terps were able to adjust after the departure of the Mitchell twins, which forced a bigger workload onto the team’s top-six players. Despite a two-game losing streak that deprived the Terps of the opportunity to win the Big Ten regular-season title outright, their win against Michigan on Senior Day captured the program’s first conference title since 2009 and its first since joining the Big Ten in 2014.

Save for a first-game flame-out in the Big Ten tournament, Maryland was expected to receive no worse than a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Then Thursday came. After speculation over whether the NCAA’s premier event would still be able to take place amid a global pandemic, president Mark Emmert ultimately decided it wouldn’t be feasible.

And with that decision, Maryland’s season ended with just as many questions as it entered with.

Would Cowan be able to lead Maryland deep into the NCAA tournament and further cement his legacy, like other Maryland greats?

Could Turgeon quell criticisms over leading the Terps to one Sweet 16 appearance in nine seasons?

The first of those questions, sad to say, will never be answered. But the second will persist as Turgeon enters his 10th year in College Park.

Jalen Smith was more than capable of filling Bruno Fernando’s shoes.

Bruno Fernando was the sole player from the previous season’s rotation to leave, but his early departure for the NBA left a massive hole in terms of production.

The obvious choice to replace Fernando was Smith, who shared the frontcourt with Fernando as a freshman. With an offseason to work on his skills and add weight to his wiry frame, Smith was given preseason All-Big Ten honors. He delivered that in his sophomore year, and then some.

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Smith averaged 15.5 points, second on the team, and led Maryland in rebounds (10.5) and blocks (2.4). Smith’s minutes increased following the departure of the Mitchell twins, but he showed no signs of slowing down, recording a double double in nine straight games.

The Mount Saint Joseph graduate was voted first-team All-Big Ten by conference coaches and media, as well as All-Defensive Big Ten. Smith is also a top-five finalist for the Karl Malone Award, given to the nation’s top power forward, and a top-10 semifinalist for the Naismith Trophy, given to the nation’s top player.

Smith’s play this season could lead him to the same route as Fernando, leaving for the NBA after his second college season. Fernando was selected 34th overall by Philadelphia 76ers and traded to the Atlanta Hawks, reuniting with former teammate Kevin Huerter.

Smith won’t have the luxury of the NCAA tournament to further boost his stock, but has been considered a fringe first-round prospect by several draft analysts. Smith elected not to enter his name into the NBA draft and survey his stock at the NBA combine at the end of last season, like his teammate Cowan did, but could do so this time around after a standout sophomore campaign.

Turgeon will have some work to do to keep next season’s team competitive.

Cowan’s departure will leave a void in Maryland’s lineup next season. For four years, Cowan played and started in every game, bringing consistency and clutch play game-in and game-out.

The potential early departure of Smith would leave a hole not only in Maryland’s backcourt, but its frontcourt as well.

Turgeon currently has two scholarship players expected to come to his program in guards Aquan Smart and Marcus Dockery. He has one more scholarship available and would gain two if Smith foregoes his remaining eligibility for the pros.

Regardless of what Smith ultimately decides, Turgeon is likely to use his remaining spot to fill the team’s frontcourt depth, whether it be on a high school recruit or via the transfer portal. Sophomore forward Ricky Lindo’s minutes were diminished, compared with his freshman year, freshman Chol Marial didn’t have much of an impact in his first time on the court in years and Joshua Tomaic is entering his final year of eligibility.

Freshman forward Donta Scott provided a steady frontcourt mate for Smith and got more comfortable as the season progressed but will need more help inside if Maryland looks to keep up in the physical Big Ten conference.

Expectations for Smart and Dockery might be subdued, with neither regarded as high-level recruits. Junior guard Darryl Morsell continues to be Maryland’s “glue guy” and soon-to-be upperclassmen Eric Ayala and Aaron Wiggins will need to take another step in their development, with Turgeon hoping their shooting more resembles that of their freshman seasons instead of their sophomore campaigns.

Barring anything unforeseen, such as Smith returning for his junior year or pulling off a late recruiting coup, Turgeon will be deprived of the top-end talent that led Maryland to a share of the regular-season title.

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