Maryland men’s basketball guard Eric Ayala admitted Tuesday he has no idea what to expect in the postseason. As one of five freshmen in the Terps’ eight-man rotation, he’s not alone.
Ayala also said the team’s veterans hadn’t been dispensing much advice about the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments — perhaps unsurprising, given their postseason resume isn’t much better than the newcomers’.
The Terps enter their Big Ten tournament opener Thursday without a postseason win since 2016. Nobody who’s expected to take the court in Chicago knows anything but one-and-dones in tournament play.
Still, despite its youth and recent history, Maryland feels well-equipped to stop the streak with a postseason run that lasts longer than two games.
“The young guys have handled it all year,” coach Mark Turgeon said. “It’s a stage, but we’ve played on a lot of big stages this year. I expect our young guys to play well.”
The Terps spent the final part of the season battling for the privilege of having Thursday off, but the eighth-year head coach believes finishing in fifth place and losing out on the double bye may end up being beneficial.
Rather than likely having to face Wisconsin to open the tournament, No. 5-seed Maryland will face No. 13-seed Nebraska, which pulled out a 68-61 win over No. 12 Rutgers on Wednesday.
“I’m thankful for the experience we’re going to get,” Turgeon said. “Would’ve loved to have the [double] bye, but I think experience is what’s important.”
After all, postseason experience is at a premium. Guard Anthony Cowan is Maryland’s only player who’s played in an NCAA tournament game, a first-round defeat to Xavier in 2017 that came on the heels of a loss to Northwestern in a de facto home game at Capital One Arena.
After a mediocre regular season last year, opening the Big Ten tournament with a loss to Wisconsin meant the Terps didn’t even receive an invite to the NIT.
Guard Darryl Morsell said the memory of that loss to the Badgers will inspire the team.
“At the end of the game, we couldn’t get rebounds and we couldn’t score when we needed to score,” Morsell said. “I just remember that feeling in the locker room after the game, just knowing the season was over. I don’t want to feel that this year.”
Turgeon emphasizes that no two teams are the same year-over-year, and also points out that the Terps were trending the wrong direction entering each of the past two postseasons, which he says is far from the truth this time around.
The Terps closed the 2017-18 regular season with an 85-61 loss to Michigan, the program’s worst home loss since 1998. The previous campaign, they opened conference play 8-1 before going 4-5 in the second half.
But this year, despite being the fifth-youngest team in the nation, Maryland successfully navigated the regular season without many duds. The lone exception was a flat loss against Penn State, which the Terps followed by hanging with the No. 10 Wolverines and cruising past Minnesota on Senior Night.
Turgeon has been pleased with his team’s handling of the spotlight, and even though one of its worst losses came at Madison Square Garden, he believes the experience gained in arenas like that one will translate to tournament play.
“We can’t get too caught up on just thinking that, ‘Oh, this is the tournament,’” forward Bruno Fernando said. “We’ve got to have fun. That’s the most important thing. … And with this group of guys that we have here, we’ve really been having fun all year long.”
The Terps, however, know what’s on the line starting Thursday.
Fernando said having members of the 2002 national championship team in attendance at the Michigan game gave him extra inspiration to cement a legacy in March.
Turgeon said he carries the weight of the program’s history with him every day (“in a way that’s positive,” he specified). But to get back to those heights, he knows his team must first get out of the rut it’s been stuck in since Jake Layman’s final season.
“Hopefully we can win a game,” Turgeon said. “Advance, and see what happens.”