At each stage of Michigan’s ongoing NCAA tournament run, what the Maryland men’s basketball team almost accomplished in Ann Arbor earlier this year has become more bewildering.
The Terps, who missed the postseason entirely for the first time since 2014, would have beaten the Final Four-bound Wolverines in January if not for a last-second defensive blunder. After failing to guard the inbounds pass following guard Kevin Huerter’s go-ahead bucket with three seconds left, forward Bruno Fernando fouled guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. Rahkman sunk both free throws to clinch a 68-67 victory.
For all of the excuses that arrived as Maryland limped out of tournament contention, nearly winning at Michigan showed it had the potential to find success with better coaching and execution.
Sure, season-ending setbacks to forwards Justin Jackson and Ivan Bender were a factor in Maryland’s decline. Recurring health problems for forward Bruno Fernando and center Michal Cekovsky also hindered the team.
But perhaps more frustrating than those challenges was the lack of accountability from coach Mark Turgeon as the campaign unraveled. There were chances to win, regardless of adversity, and the team simply couldn’t.
Often, Turgeon played up the Terps’ obstacles, emphasizing how much they battled a tough schedule against supposedly insurmountable odds. The narrative glossed over the active role he had in their downfall.
Maryland took a 10-point halftime lead at Michigan. Huerter’s 3-pointer gave the Terps a one-point advantage with little time remaining. But failing to defend the ensuing inbounds pass likely cost Maryland a resume-boosting road win over a top-25 foe.
While Turgeon admitted he should have set up his team better on Michigan’s final possession, he didn’t acknowledge that putting a man on the inbounder could’ve prevented the collapse.
Against Indiana, a late unforced turnover by Darryl Morsell on an inbounds pass, failure to rebound a missed free throw and incoherent final possession led to a 71-68 road loss. Instead of explaining why guard Anthony Cowan took an ugly 3-pointer with six seconds left after a stagnant possession, Turgeon deflected.
“Worked our tails off, tough environment,” Turgeon said. “Bruno went down, Ceko was in foul trouble. We’re limited and we just kept battling.”
Against Nebraska, the Terps again failed to execute late in the game, losing 70-66 after giving up a key offensive rebound in the final 30 seconds. Turgeon blamed Maryland’s inability to close the contest on the Cornhuskers keying in on Huerter and Cowan, even though Fernando led the team with 21 points.
Against Penn State, all Maryland could muster in the final 30 seconds of its 74-70 loss was a wild layup attempt from Cowan and a heavily-contested 3-point prayer from guard Jared Nickens. Turgeon claimed the unranked Nittany Lions had “maybe three NBA guys,” even though they don’t have any players projected to be a 2018 first-round pick.
“My guys battled. Are you serious, guys? Let’s be real,” Turgeon said in his most defensive moment of the season. “My kids battled. We had like four guys out there. My guys battled.”
The rotten cherry on top of the disastrous season came with eight seconds left in Maryland’s Big Ten tournament matchup with Wisconsin, when Cowan ran an inbound play incorrectly and guard Dion Wiley threw away the pass.
It was the fitting summation of a year that featured few marquee wins and the kind of consistent late-game mistakes that led fans to question Turgeon’s management skills.
Players defended their coach, explaining it was their own mental errors that caused them to fall short of their potential.
“Coach Turgeon doesn’t execute plays when we’re supposed to execute plays that we practiced multiple times. That’s all on the players,” Huerter said. “We didn’t make plays for him.”
Still, Michigan’s ascent despite being picked to finish fifth in the Big Ten this year illustrates the effect good coaching can have. Maryland might not have been on par with the Wolverines without Jackson, but the gulf between the programs certainly wasn’t a Final Four appearance and missing the postseason altogether.
Better coaching from Turgeon to ensure on-court cohesiveness late in games would have gone a long way in closing the gap.
The Terps will likely have much greater aspirations next year given their top-15 recruiting class and probable return of multiple starters, but adversity will no doubt strike again. If Turgeon again fails to elevate his team to meet those challenges, maybe it’ll be time for someone else to guide the program to the destinations he’s yet to reach.