As the new year rolled in, Maryland men’s basketball was at a crossroads.
The Terps had just fallen to then-No. 16 Michigan, 84-73. Without a traditional post presence, coach Mark Turgeon’s squad toiled, struggling to contain Hunter Dickinson’s threat on one end and failing to make a dent in the interior on the other. Maryland sat at 6-4, a tournament appearance seeming all the more unlikely with matchups against then-No. 5 Iowa and then-No. 12 Illinois looming.
So, the Terps made changes. Turgeon and his staff altered players’ rotations on defense, hoping to lessen the burden on Maryland’s bigs. On offense, Donta Scott, Eric Ayala and Darryl Morsell began to get looks in the post, offering additional scoring outlets — even despite their relatively diminutive stature compared to some of the Big Ten’s backcourt staples.
It hasn’t been perfect. Few things are this season. But, the Terps have made incremental progress since, Turgeon says. Now, Maryland is looking to solidify its tournament aspirations, buoyed by a more settled team identity.
“We accepted who we are and what we’re going to be about,” Turgeon said. “We just try to be the best at what we do, and we’re getting better at it. It doesn’t mean we’re going to be great every night, but we’re getting better at what we do.”
That adjustment was particularly difficult for Turgeon. Guard play has long represented the brains of Maryland basketball — cerebral players who pace the team on both ends of the floor. Dominant bigs, though, represent its heart. Whether it’s Alex Len, Diamond Stone, Bruno Fernando or, more recently, Jalen Smith, the Terps have often relied on skilled bigs to shoulder the load on both ends of the floor.
“I miss it,” Turgeon said. “Especially when you’ve had the guys I’ve had. I’ve been pretty spoiled.”
As Maryland embarked on its conference slate, the void in the middle became more and more pronounced. Dickinson torched the likes of Scott and Morsell, pouring in a then-career high 26 points on 10-of-11 shooting. Trayce Jackson-Davis found similar success when the Terps traveled to Assembly Hall, scoring 22 points and snatching 15 rebounds as the Terps limped to an eight point defeat.
Luka Garza repeated the feat a third time — 24 points on 9-of-14 shooting — and Maryland fell to 6-6.
Still, there were flickers of optimism here and there, moments for Turgeon and his staff to cling onto as the Terps came to grip with their adjustments.
“You could kinda see it, in certain games where our rotations were getting [better],” Turgeon said. “We might not have won [those games] but you could see it was getting better. We just weren’t there yet.”
One of those moves was simplifying the playbook. With the likes of Scott and Jairus Hamilton forced to play multiple positions, Maryland opted to make things easier in an effort to extract more across the squad.
The results have been promising, guard Aaron Wiggins said — even if they haven’t always been reflected in the final score.
“It just gives everyone a chance to play freely,” Wiggins said. “Kinda have that opportunity to create for each other, create for yourself. Just kinda play your style of basketball.”
And on Saturday afternoon, that burgeoning freedom was on full display. The Terps were aggressive and physical on the defensive end, unfettered by the challenge of taking on then-No. 17 Minnesota away from home.
Maryland held the Golden Gophers’ high-powered offense to just 49 points, by far its lowest total of the season. Facing a significant size disadvantage down low, the Terps battled and clawed their way to victory, edging Minnesota in rebounding (38-30) and points in the paint (22-18).
“We’re getting better every day,” Scott said. “We step on the court just being mindful that there’s things we need to work on and once we step on this court, we’ve gotta be locked in and focused. … That’s defense.”
Although the offense wasn’t quite as fluid as Maryland would’ve hoped, it did enough. Ayala filled it up, scoring 21. Wiggins continued to show his progression as a facilitator, dishing four assists. And the Terps cruised, notching a momentous 14-point victory.
With the schedule set to loosen in the coming weeks — Maryland had the toughest start to conference play, per T-Rank — the Terps will be hoping to rely on those adjustments as they look to cement their status as tournament hopefuls.
But, the road to Indianapolis looks much more stable than it did on New Years’ Eve, as Maryland toiled against Dickinson and the rest of Michigan’s squad. With the Terps in need of an answer, Turgeon and his staff answered the call.
Now, they’re hoping it platforms Maryland’s push for stability in an ever-changing Big Ten.
“We’re probably as simple as any team I’ve ever had,” Turgeon said. “But we’re getting better at simple. That’s what we have to do. We just gotta get better at simple and once guys get good at that, maybe we can add a few things.”