It’s an unusual Maryland men’s basketball team playing an unusual college basketball season, and at times, that seems to be the only way to explain the state of the Terps.
There is no ball-dominant point guard to rescue the team from wasted possessions as the shot clock expires. There is no towering presence to dominate the paint; the tallest player in coach Mark Turgeon’s rotation often stands no bigger than 6-foot-9.
And yet, Turgeon has taken this group and produced three road wins against ranked opponents, all in the Big Ten Conference, the toughest league in the nation. The feat is a first for the program and something that seemed unattainable as Maryland struggled to capture any road victories against Top 25 teams for the first eight years of the Turgeon era.
So unusual, right? Not to senior guard Darryl Morsell.
“I always say, we’re all dogs, man. Team full of dogs,” the former Mount Saint Joseph star said. “And we’re built for this. We love coming into to other arenas and just leaving our mark. That’s big. We’ve got a lot more to accomplish as a team and a lot we can definitely get better at.”
A year ago, Morsell provided late-game heroics on offense in Williams Arena, hitting a deep 3-pointer late to secure a 17-point comeback. This year’s victory, a wire-to-wire win, didn’t require any last-minute drama and Morsell was a key reason why. He took the main responsibility of guarding Minnesota’s Marcus Carr, and although Carr finished with a game-high 25 points while playing the entire 40 minutes, Morsell provided tight defense throughout the game, whether it was playing man-to-man, rotating or picking up Carr for the length of the court.
“It starts with Darryl,” Turgeon said. “And I thought it started with Darryl and [sophomore forward] Donta [Scott]. Donta was very physical to start the game and I thought Darryl was terrific. He just kind of rubs off on everyone else.”
Maryland recaptured the potency of its small-ball lineup.
Turgeon said he started the game with a four-guard lineup of established veterans to give the Terps a spark. It was a lineup that isn’t unique to Maryland — the Eric Ayala-Hakim Hart-Aaron Wiggins-Darryl Morsell-Donta Scott lineup is the fifth-most used combination in the past five games, according to KenPom — but gave the Terps five legitimate ball-handlers.
Ayala, who returned to the starting lineup, played more off the ball, as Turgeon said he would. It’s a tactic Turgeon used with Melo Trimble and Anthony Cowan Jr. to remove a bit of the playmaking load from them as they progressed in their careers. The adjustment worked wonders for Maryland and specifically Ayala, who scored a team-high 21 points and had several baskets off nifty cuts.
But the five-out approach again highlighted the Terps’ best option on offense and one that fails if players don’t move the ball and make timely cuts to free themselves from defenders.
“We’ve been drilling cutting backdoor and stuff with our offense,” Ayala said. “Guys are going to try to deny us and stuff like that. So [it is] just reading the play. If they’re going to deny us, the backdoor is going to be open. [We’re] staying alert, not making useless cuts and stuff like that.”
The Terps are laying the groundwork for a puzzling — but legitimate — NCAA tournament resume.
After a third road win over a ranked opponent, the question Ayala received after the game was not surprising.
Has Maryland, sitting just two games above .500 and three games below in conference play, began to consider the NCAA tournament resume it is putting together for the Division I men’s basketball committee?
“[We’re] definitely contending to play for when March comes,” Ayala said. “It’s important for us to keep getting big wins and just rallying together wins away at home. I don’t think we think about that when we step on the court but it’s just a matter of trying to get one win at a time.”
It was a measured and correct response from the junior leader, with Selection Sunday (March 14) still seven weeks away. But Saturday’s win was even more reason for optimism for Maryland, which has played the fifth-toughest schedule in the country, according to KenPom.
The first half of the Terps’ 20-game conference schedule featured seven games against opponents who were ranked at the time of their meeting. The second half is a bit more forgiving, which just three games against teams currently ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 poll and a host of other winnable games against teams with sub-.500 records in conference play (The Big Ten has also yet to reschedule Maryland’s game against Nebraska that was postponed because of coronavirus issues within the Cornhuskers’ program).
Maryland’s strong performances against some of the best teams in the country, paired with its strength of schedule, have led the team to be rated favorably by analytics. After Saturday’s games, KenPom and the NCAA’s NET rankings have the Terps slotted at No. 41 and No. 34, respectively. Only nine teams in the country have more Quad 1 victories, the most impressive in the NET rankings, than Maryland.
But establishing a legitimate case to be included in the 68-team field will require consistency from the Terps, who have yet to win two straight conference games.