From a second-year player’s jump to a performance that possibly clinched a bid to the NCAA tournament, here are three takeaways from the Maryland men’s basketball team’s 73-55 win over Michigan State on Sunday.
Hakim Hart’s progression has helped round out the starting five.
This time last year, Hart was struggling to crack the rotation as he made the adjustment from high school to college. But the sophomore from Philadelphia has established himself to be a bona fide starter as a sophomore.
Hart, who didn’t appear in 10 straight games last season during the heart of the Terps’ conference schedule, first gave an inkling he returned to College Park an improved player when he dropped a career-high 32 points against St. Peter’s, tied for the most by a Maryland player since 2015.
As the season progressed, Hart has shown himself to be more than just a spot-up shooter. The fourth guard in Maryland’s small-ball starting lineup, Hart has taken on point guard duties, defended well and has started to make more plays off the dribble.
When Michigan State closed Maryland’s lead to five within 10 minutes remaining, Hart opened and closed the scoring on the Terps’ 9-2 run to distance themselves from the Spartans. He first scored a tough driving layup over Rocket Watts, then hit a 3-pointer to put Maryland up by 12 with 5:13 remaining. Hart has scored in double figures in back-to-back games for the first time since January.
“He’s physically tougher, he’s mentally tougher. He’s tired of me yelling at him about being soft and his confidence is growing,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “I started playing him at point and he’s been great with it. Our players love him, respect him, and they’re encouraging him to play with more toughness.
“We recruited him because of his shooting and we recruited him because he was a great passer, and it’s kind of all coming together now.”
Donta Scott has been up to the task as Maryland’s top big man.
Scott opened conference play with double-digit scoring in nine of Maryland’s first 10 games and looked to be the Terps’ best scoring option early in the season. But as junior guards Eric Ayala and Aaron Wiggins have stepped up with a strong offensive stretch, the sophomore forward’s offensive numbers have dropped; Scott has only reached double figures in two of Maryland’s past eight games.
And yet, Scott has continued to make all-around contributions as the sole big in the Terps’ starting lineup. He recorded at least seven rebounds for the fourth straight game Sunday and led the team with five assists before providing all seven of his points late in the second half as the Terps pulled away.
“He can be just a great passer and then sometimes he can just lock out and not know who we’re playing or what day it is,” Turgeon said. “But today, when he locked in, he was a great passer.
“I thought where he was the best was boxing out, because Malik Hall last year when we played here, he knocked Donta on his butt the first two plays of the game. And Donta wasn’t having any of that today. He got one rebound, I swear his head was right by the rim, Donta. He came to play. He was physical and had to be physical for us.”
The Terps can feel pretty confident that they’re going to the NCAA tournament.
Maryland’s ascent has been quick and maybe no team in the country has reversed its fortunes like the Terps. The team entered February four games under .500 but will head into March 9-9 in conference play with two regular-season games left and the Big Ten tournament looming.
The Terps were projected as a No. 9 seed by several experts heading into Sunday’s game, and after their win over a Michigan State team that had consecutive wins over top-five opponents, they can rest assured that regardless of how the regular season and conference tournament concludes, they will likely find their way into the NCAA tournament.
There’s still room for improvement, though, and stacking wins in the conference tournament would go a long way toward further silencing doubters of Turgeon and his squad. But it’s a testament to the work of everyone in Maryland’s program, starting with Turgeon and his coaching staff, that the discussion surrounding the Terps has shifted from wondering if they would be at the mercy of the selection committee to dreaming of what favorable matchup could await on Selection Sunday.