Maryland men’s basketball prepares for unusual Christmas matchup

Aaron Wiggins goes up strong to the hoop during Maryland's 84-71 win over La Salle on Dec. 22, 2020, at the Xfinity Center. (Julia Nikhinson/The Diamondback)

The first thing Darryl Morsell notices is the commotion. Every Christmas, relatives pack into his family’s Baltimore home, rejoicing in each other’s company under the glow of colored light bulbs and holiday decor. It’s a moment Morsell has always cherished, a feeling that has only intensified since he arrived in College Park.

There are the usual festivities: Taboo is the board game of choice, Morsell said. The scent of Morsell’s mom’s cooking lingers in the air. The television flashes images from the NBA’s annual slate of Christmas Day fixtures — the main course of entertainment.

“I’ll miss that this year,” Morsell said. 

That’s because this Christmas, Morsell will be in West Lafayette, Indiana. Maryland men’s basketball takes on Purdue, another scheduling oddity in a season defined by them. But while the Terps look for ways to find relative normalcy during the holidays, they are taking the game in stride, looking to start new winter traditions on — and off — the court.

“It’ll be unique,” coach Mark Turgeon said. “But this year is unique. Everything about it is unique.” 

[Maryland men’s basketball holds off La Salle, 84-71]

Maryland has only played one other time on Christmas Day, in 1984. A Len Bias-led squad held Iowa off in an overtime thriller in Honolulu. Nowadays, games are typically spread out during the holiday season. Players are given a little time to go home to their families.

But this is no typical year. Strict COVID-19 protocols mean players must stay in their “bubbles” in College Park. Reuniting with the family over the holidays, it seemed, was out of the question.

So, when Turgeon first told the team it would be playing on Christmas, there was excitement, the coach said. With a nearly nine-month layoff, the prospect of playing a rapid succession of games in a short period was enticing.

“It wasn’t anything that was devastating,” guard Aaron Wiggins said. “You want to enjoy that time and have fun, but basketball is something we all love to do so we’re happy to be able to play, to have games ahead, to have a schedule even in front of us.” 

That schedule has muddied in recent weeks. The Terps had four games canceled during their non-conference slate, sending the team looking for replacements. Although conference play is more structured, the impending fixture pile-upthree games in seven days — may help make space for potential COVID-19 delays come March.

In a season filled with postponements and cancellations, this flexibility is crucial, Turgeon said.

“By cramming a bunch of games in over Christmas break,” he said, “If teams do catch COVID, that you can have some make-up times down the road.” 

Still, it’s not easy. The holiday season can offer a sort of reprieve for athletes, a brief escape from the hustle and bustle of high-level collegiate athletics.

[Darryl Morsell hopes to rekindle scoring touch for Maryland men’s basketball]

So, Turgeon’s squad is making adjustments. For Morsell, that means FaceTimes with his parents. They’ve been a regular component of life during his college career. But amid a grueling season and a global pandemic those calls will become one of few ways to stay connected to his family. 

Wiggins is faced with a similar proposition. The junior was part of a large family Zoom meeting on Thanksgiving, and says the health and safety of himself and his teammates is the most important thing. 

“I’ve always spent time with my family over the holidays,” Wiggins said. [Now], you do those things from distance.” 

The push for traces of stability goes beyond the virtual world. With games due to pick up in the coming weeks, the Terps have focused on strengthening ties between teammates. 

Earlier in the week, they went bowling. NBA2K has also been a constant source of joy — and frustration — around the team.

“I think I’m top-three for sure,” Morsell said.

Meanwhile, Turgeon and the rest of Maryland’s staff has some festivities planned after Friday’s game. He didn’t reveal any specifics, but outlined how much sweeter the celebrations would be if the Terps were able to claim a victory Friday afternoon.

“It’ll be a lot more enjoyable if you win on Christmas Day,” Turgeon said.

It’s less than ideal, of course. Players won’t be able to drift away from the routine of college life; Morsell won’t have his mom’s home cooking.

But Maryland is upbeat. This season has already brought on a number of unusual occurrences. And now a new one — Christmas Day hoops — is in the mix.

“It is what it is,” Turgeon said. “Guys would much rather be playing games than just not playing.” 

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