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2019-’20 Maryland Terrapins Basketball Season Preview

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BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Maryland Terrapins and what fans should expect from the program heading into the 2019-’20 season.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Maryland vs LSU Matt Stamey-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019-’20 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2019-’20 ‘season with analysis on each program’s previous season, offseason departures, new additions, strengths, weakness, top player, and top storylines. Each post will also include predictions on each team’s starting lineup, season performance and commentary from a local “insider” who covers said team.

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“Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”

We’ve all heard this quote before. Whether it’s when we’re heading into a big interview, taking a shot at something in life out of our reach, or just had something disappointing happen to us. It’s one of those statements that connects with something we know is true, which is probably why it’s stood the test of time.

When Alexander Pope wrote it centuries ago, I don’t think he was thinking about college basketball. But even so, that quote perfectly describes the plight of the Maryland Terrapins in recent years and how many have evaluated Mark Turgeon’s performance as the program’s head coach.

Since Turgeon took over in 2012, Maryland has undeniably been one of the nation’s better programs. The Terps have five postseason appearances in his eight seasons at the helm, including four NCAA Tournament trips and five seasons with at least 20 wins. Maryland has also finished 52nd or higher on KenPom seven times under Turgeon, including two finishes in the top 25.

Making the Big Dance and consistently winning 20 games a year isn’t enough for some programs, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t noteworthy, either. A lot of teams would kill for results like Maryland has experienced under Turgeon. Just look at the last five seasons alone, where the Terps have made four NCAA Tournaments, a Sweet 16, and had two seasons with at least 27 wins. The team hasn’t won the Big Ten or made the Final Four, but that’s not exactly a horrible run.

The problem, though, for Turgeon and the Terps are the expectations. Maryland fans may have accepted “ok” results early in his tenure, but a sense of restlessness has grown in the fan base. Last season’s 23-11 mark and trip to the Round of 32 was a nice reprieve, but Maryland has yet to put together the season fans have been waiting for.

Maybe this is a bit nuanced, but Turgeon’s run has reminded me a lot of Jim Harbaugh’s tenure with Michigan football a few states over. Generally speaking, Harbaugh’s teams have performed quite well. The Wolverines have had a pretty solid record and perform well at home. However, Harbaugh’s teams also haven’t had the moment to change perception.

The Terps enter this season in the same dilemmia. The team wins and plays well at home, but can’t seem to get over the hump. While this might sound oversimplified, fans haven’t had an accomplishment they’ve really been able to brag about. Turgeon isn’t putting up banners and bringing home trophies.

Just think about the frustration this way. Maryland went 55-16 over two seasons and the team had two wins over top 10 KenPom opponents, both coming in the regular season. That doesn’t make those seasons any worse. It just makes them feel a bit empty.

But one has to wonder whether that criticism will end this year. With so much talent coming back in players like Anthony Cowan, Darryl Morsell, and Jalen Smith and a talented 2019 recruiting class, hopes are high for the Terps. On paper, this figures to be the most talented and balanced roster Maryland has had since the 2014-’15 season, when Maryland went 27-9 and made the Sweet 16.

So, can Maryland get it done? Let’s take a look.

BTPowerhouse Season Preview Podcast

Along with reading BTPowerhouse’s season preview post for the Maryland Terrapins, make sure to check out the site’s podcast preview of the Terps, featuring BTPowerhouse Manager Thomas Beindit and Lila Bromberg of Testudo Times breaking down Maryland’s roster, incoming recruits, schedule, and season outlook.

1. 2018-’19 Season Performance

  • Record: 23-11 (13-7)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #24
  • NET Rating: #25
  • Postseason Appearance: NCAA (R32)

Although many Terp fans were a tad disappointed with the finish last season, Maryland actually had a pretty good 2018-’19 campaign. The team went 23-11 overall and 13-7 in the Big Ten, finished 24th in KenPom, and came just a bucket short of beating LSU and making the Sweet 16. However, as we spoke about in the intro, Maryland once again was really solid, but just not quite good enough to really put a stamp on the season.

And what derailed the Terps during the season?

Generally speaking, two things led to the missteps. The first was a really tough slate where Maryland struggled to finish against elite opponents. Maryland lost 11 games last season and seven (!!!) of those came against teams ranked 19th or better on KenPom, including five regular season losses against teams ranked 9th or better. It’s not exactly easy to rip Maryland for losing to eventual national champion Virginia or to teams like Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue on the road.

The other issue plaguing the team came from a few “no show” performances against mediocre competition. These included a home loss to Seton Hall, double-digit losses to Illinois and Penn State, and a brutal loss to Nebraska in the team’s Big Ten Tournament opener. It’s unfair to expect a team to never have an off night, but there’s no reason that Maryland should be losing to Illinois on a neutral court or to a team like Seton Hall at home.

And just think about what that last loss to Nebraska, in particular. If Maryland wins that game, it avoids a bad resume loss and gets a shot at Wisconsin, who the Terps beat earlier in the season. Two woulds there would have really helped Maryland’s resume heading into the postseason and given the team a shot at Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament.

All told, Maryland was a pretty good team last year and had a pretty good season. It just felt a bit hollow with the team’s difficult schedule and missteps against lower competition. Add in the close loss to LSU in the NCAA Tournament and that feeling really sets in.

Highlights of the season included wins over Purdue and Wisconsin during the regular season and the win over Belmont in the NCAA Tournament. Low points of the season were the losses to Illinois, Nebraska, and Penn State along with the heartbreaking loss to LSU in the NCAA Tournament.

Individual statistical leaders were Anthony Cowan, Bruno Fernando. Cowan led the team in minutes, points, and assists, steals, and usage among contributors. Fernando led the team in rebounds, blocks, and total win shares.

2. Offseason Exits

Given how last season went and how things projected going into the summer, Maryland actually got off pretty well with regard to offseason departures. All told, the team lost four players and only one of them was a substantial contributor. These departures were Ivan Bender, Bruno Fernando, Trace Ramsey, and Andrew Terrell.

The most significant loss of this group undeniably comes from Fernando. He was a force for the Terps down low over the last two years and did a great job at getting to the bucket and to the free throw line on the offensive side of the court. Fernando finished last season with a 114.9 offensive rating and a 50.9 free throw rate. Add in 13.6 points and 10.6 rebounds per game and it’s pretty easy to see why he will be a big loss this offseason.

What’s particularly intriguing about Fernando’s play last season was how well he managed to stay on the court. One of the biggest issues with most big men is their inability to stay on the court. However, Fernando managed to play 75.1 percent of the team’s minutes. For perspective, that’s right behind Ethan Happ and massively ahead of players like Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Luka Garza. Put more simply, that’s going to make him harder to replace this season for the Terps.

As noted above, the other three departures won’t exactly leave a massive dent in the lineup. Bender had his moments, but only played 7.1 percent of team minutes last season. And Ramsey and Terrell combined for 21 minutes over the course of the entire season. All three made their own impact, but Maryland should have no trouble finding replacements on the court this season for these three.

Given how many players on Maryland’s roster looked like potential NBA prospects heading into the summer, losing just on key contributor is a pretty fortunate bounce. Terp fans will hope the team can use those returns to cash in this season.

3. New Additions

This season, the Terps are bringing in a talented group of newcomers. This group includes five recruits, which are Hakim Hart, Chol Marial, Makhel Mitchell, Makhi Mitchell, and Donta Scott. Hart is listed as a shooting guard, Scott is listed as a small forward, and Marial and the two Mitchell’s are listed as centers. Makhi Mitchell is rated as a four-star prospect by 247Sports and the remaining four are rated as three-stars.

The recruit receiving the most attention from this group is Makhi Mitchell, who many hope can step in immediately and fill in for some of Fernando’s lost minutes. However, what’s so interesting about this class is the fact that Maryland brought in three players listed at 6-foot-9 or above, including Makhi Mitchell. There’s little debating that Mark Turgeon and his staff put a major emphasis on size last offseason and making a concerted effort to replace Fernando down low, in the likely scenario he took off for the NBA. And those efforts have led to some really nice additions in that regard.

What’s nice about adding three players like this in the same class, though, is that it drastically increases the likelihood Maryland hits on a big man this year. The Terps have three rolls of the dice and some good bets, particularly with Makhi Mitchell. Add in a returner like Jalen Smith and it’s easy to see some nice frontcourt depth forming. If the team can hit on even one this season, things should be in pretty good shape.

The other two additions come from Hart and Scott. Based on their recruiting evaluations, Scott is the more well regarded recruit. However, with Maryland’s depth in the backcourt and on the wing, both will really have to hit the ground running if they hope to contribute significantly this season. Expect them to play off the bench.

This class isn’t as stacked as some of Maryland’s recent classes, but all five prospects have potential and at least one or two should contribute this season. And if the Terps can work them in well with what the team already has returning, an exciting season could be on the way.

4. Points of Optimism

There’s no point in sidestepping the obvious with this section. There’s a lot to be optimistic about with this group of Terps heading into this season. Maryland figures to be one of the most talented and experienced teams in the conference with potential All-Big Ten options at multiple positions. The team might not compare favorably to national title contenders, but there is a lot to like about this group.

The first thing to highlight with this team is the experience. As noted above, Maryland is really only losing one player this offseason. An important player in Fernando, but ultimately, one player. Anthony Cowan and Darryl Morsell return in the backcourt, Eric Ayala and Jalen Smith return on the wing, and some depth options like Serrel Smith and Aaron Wiggins also return. Even with just those pieces, Maryland could field a pretty solid lineup.

Many of these players also have significant upside. Sure, Cowan has probably hit his ceiling as an upperclassman, but Ayala, both Smith’s, and Wiggins were all freshmen last season. It’s not exactly a bold take to think that freshmen could take a step forward as sophomores. And Maryland has a lot of them figuring to play in key roles this year. This is where the Terps have so much upside. Few teams have this much rising youth and talent.

But Maryland doesn’t just have some talented players returners. The Terps are also bringing in a five-man class with three bigs that should be able to replace many of Fernando’s lost minutes. As noted above, this class isn’t as talented as some of the program’s recent groups, but it has depth and it seems likely a player or two will come in ready to contribute. If so, Maryland could find its crucial fifth starter.

It also requires reiterating how balanced this roster is coming into this season. Unlike in years past, Maryland’s talent isn’t limited to a spot or two in the lineup. The Terps have probable starters ready in at least four spots and a handful of potential options for the fifth. Few teams have that kind of balance and it could mean big things for the team heading into this season.

5. Points of Concern

While there is plenty of excitement about the Terps heading into this season, there are some reasons to be concerned as well. Not only does the team have to replace a key player in Fernando, but it also needs to find a way to improve a roster filled with largely the same players as last year. Making a better cake with the same ingredients isn’t always easy.

The biggest question mark heading into this season will be about how Maryland replaces Fernando. As mentioned above, Fernando was a monster for the Terps last year. He led the team in rebounds and was second in minutes and points as well. Those are really impressive numbers for a big man in today’s game. Add in his 65.3 true shooting percentage and it’s easy to see his efficiency as well. Those kind of guys don’t come along every year.

And that’s the challenge for the Terps. How can you replace a player like Fernando? The simply answer is that you probably can’t in a single offseason. Maybe one of the freshmen can come in and surprise, but it’s hard to see any of them replacing his production down low. Fans will have to hope the team can do it by committee. Get 10 to 20 minutes out of the freshmen and slide Smith over to the five for the rest of the time. He played some backup minutes last year at the five and did alright. Fans will hope he can build on that.

The other key question for this team is really the other side of its greatest strength. Maryland’s receiving a lot of lofty projections heading into this season and much of it has to do with that talented group of rising sophomores. Some of this was addressed above, specifically the idea that freshmen improve heading into their sophomore year.

However, we also need to note that there are a number of assumptions there. While freshmen often improve in their next season, sophomore slumps exist as well, especially when the player really hits the ground running in their first year. And the freshmen of today aren’t freshmen of the past. Sometimes they take significant steps forward, but they often only improve moderately, if at all. Perhaps a guy like Smith takes a huge step forward, or maybe he is about what he was last year. And with Fernando departing, Maryland is going to need at least one of its key returners to take a big step forward.

6. Top Player

Heading into last season, Maryland had a few potential candidates to be the team’s best player. However, as Eric Leisure wrote for our site at the time, Fernando was the pretty easy overall pick:

Can I say Brulen Fernamith? Or Jano Sminando?

I can’t? I have to pick either Bruno or Jalen? Fine.

Bruno Fernando it is.

Before you say anything, however, I wholeheartedly understand the case to be made for Anthony Cowan in this spot. After all, the junior guard was both All-Defensive and Third Team Big Ten last year, and followed that up with a preseason All-Big Ten selection for this upcoming season.

But my pick of Fernando has less to do with the play of last year and more so with his raw talent and overall ceiling.

At 6-foot-10 and a year removed from a highlight filled season, my expectation is that the Angolan Assassin takes a big step forward this year. He’ll have another talented big in Jalen Smith to ease some of the pressure of carrying Maryland’s frontcourt, and can focus on developing his game to what he hopes to be an NBA-level.

Keep in mind that this is a man who had some truly dominating performances in his freshmen year (like going for 18 points and 16 boards against Rutgers or his double-double at Purdue) and, if you take Mark Turgeon at his word, only got bigger and stronger in the offseason.

Generally speaking, that was a pretty good (and easy) prediction. Fernando ended up leading the roster in win shares by a pretty good margin and averaged a double-double on the season. Cowan was arguably the team’s second best player, posting some pretty solid numbers himself. Jalen Smith also made quite a mark as a true freshman.

But with Fernando now gone, there’s a clear opening for a player to assert himself as the team’s best player. Cowan is probably the safe bet given his experience, but Smith seems like the smart money pick. He was pretty close to Cowan in overall contributions last year and was a true freshman. If he can clean up his game a little bit and get some more touches down low, it’s not hard to see him putting together a remarkable season.

Other potential wildcards for this pick are Ayala, Makhi Mitchell, Morsell, and Wiggins. All had pretty good recruiting evaluations and should contribute this year. However, Cowan or Smith seem like the best bets.

7. 2019-’20 Schedule Breakdown

  • 11/1 - Fayetteville State (Ex.)
  • 11/5 - Holy Cross
  • 11/9 - Rhode Island
  • 11/18 - Oakland
  • 11/19 - Fairfield
  • 11/22 - George Mason
  • 11/28 - Temple (Orlando, FL)
  • 11/29 - Harvard/Texas A&M (Orlando, FL)
  • 12/1 - Advocare Invitational (Orlando, FL)
  • 12/4 - Notre Dame
  • 12/7 - Illinois
  • 12/10 - at Penn State
  • 12/19 - at Seton Hall
  • 12/29 - Bryant
  • 1/4 - Indiana
  • 1/7 - Ohio State
  • 1/10 - at Iowa
  • 1/14 - at Wisconsin
  • 1/18 - Purdue
  • 1/21 - at Northwestern
  • 1/26 - at Indiana
  • 1/30 - Iowa
  • 2/4 - Rutgers
  • 2/7 - at Illinois
  • 2/11 - Nebraska
  • 2/15 - at Michigan State
  • 2/18 - Northwestern
  • 2/23 - at Ohio State
  • 2/26 - at Minnesota
  • 2/29 - Michigan State
  • 3/3 - at Rutgers
  • 3/8 - Michigan

Like a few other teams in the Big Ten this year, Maryland falls squarely in the camp of having an “under the radar” slate. The non-conference schedule lacks elite opponents, at least on paper, but it could end up helping Maryland build a pretty solid resume heading into league play. And the league schedule should make up for that with a variety of marquee opponents at home this season.

Non-conference play doesn’t have that lone “standout” game that will turn heads nationally. However, the team gets Rhode Island and Notre Dame at home, a road trip to Seton Hall, and what figures to be a pretty challenging test in the Advocare Invitational. Perhaps Seton Hall will live up to the hype and that will give the team a shot at a top 25 road victory, but this is going to be a slate where Maryland will have to earn its keep with solid wins. The good news is that it should allow the team to get rolling before January.

Given Maryland’s projections coming into this season, expectations have to be adjusted somewhat with regard to the Terps. This year isn’t about protecting home court or beating weaker teams on the road. It’s going to be tough to win the Big Ten given Michigan State’s profile, but Maryland should enter the season with high expectations nonetheless.

Those expectations mean we should set our focus on the marquee games. Maryland is going to get plenty of them, but here’s the ones that really stand out to me:

  • 12/7 - Illinois
  • 1/7 - Ohio State
  • 1/18 - Purdue
  • 2/29 - Michigan State
  • 3/8 - Michigan

Michigan State, Ohio State, and Purdue figure to be in the top 25 discussion this season, Michigan is coming off a 30-7 season, and the Illini have been circled by many as being the Big Ten’s dark horse this year. What all that means is that Maryland should have at least five opportunities to score really nice resume wins at home. Add in plenty more on the road and the opportunities will certainly be there for the Terps.

I hate simplifying a season down to just a handful of games, but that’s going to be the story about Maryland this season. The Terps were a really good team last year that wasn’t great because it missed on too many of its marquee opportunities. Pulling off wins in those games is easier said than done, but that will be the challenge for Maryland with this schedule.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Anthony Cowan (Sr.) - 95%
  • SG: Darryl Morsell (Jr.) - 90%
  • SF: Eric Ayala (So.) - 85%
  • PF: Aaron Wiggins (So.) - 65%
  • C: Jalen Smith (So.) - 95%

(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)

With so much returning talent this offseason, Maryland’s lineup really isn’t all that hard to project. Maryland returns four starters from an NCAA Tournament squad and virtually all of its bench as well. The only real questions revolve around where the freshmen will fit in and who competes for the fifth starting spot.

In the backcourt, Cowan and Morsell should lock things down. Cowan’s game speaks for itself by this point. He’s been one of the Big Ten’s best guards for the last few years and should be again this season. Morsell will also likely continue as a starter. The only question with him will be how his minutes sort out. Serrel Smith will be sitting behind him and Ayala is also a potential option at the position, if the wing group develops more. It should be one of those “good questions to have” situations for Turgeon, where he gets to divide the bench minutes between some great options.

On the wing, expect Ayala to lock down one spot. And as mentioned above, his minutes there will likely depend on who develops around him. He can easily play at the two or three spot, so if someone on the wing is pushing for minutes, expect him to slide over to the backcourt. Alongside Ayala, I expect Wiggins to grab the starting spot after a decent freshman campaign. Wiggins was actually pretty good as a freshman, but had to play off the bench due to a pretty deep wing group around him. Things should clear out a bit if Smith plays more upfront.

And with that said, I expect Smith to grab the starting duties at the five spot. This is the position where the most questions lie. Smith has played there before and was productive, but it’s probably not his best raw position fit. The team might be better with Smith at the four in theory, but can anyone develop behind him to take minutes at center? This is where the freshmen, particularly Makhi Mitchell, come in. But early on, Smith should dominate the minutes here.

Maryland’s lineup may not be perfect, but it looks pretty solid heading into this season. It has some really talented options and at least four players with starting experience. If some of the bench options from last season and the freshmen can hit the ground running, this could be a really great lineup. We’ll have to wait and see if that happens.

9. Team Perspective From Andrew Emmer

“I don’t think it’s hyperbole to call the 2019-2020 Maryland Basketball season the most pivotal for the program since 2003, the year after they won the National Title. In the 16 seasons since, they have slowly descended from one of the 5-10 best programs in the country - clearly capable of challenging for, and winning, a championship - to somewhere between “good” and “fine”. In the eight seasons Mark Turgeon has been the head coach, there have been more disappointing seasons than not, but this year’s team is clearly the one most well positioned to change the narrative. Coincidently, it comes at a time in the life of Turgeon’s contract, with two years left after this one, that another disappointment could lead to hard decisions...or major success could lead to a long extension.

The reason expectations are so high? The team that was among the youngest in all of college basketball last season and exceeded almost everyone’s expectations by going 13-7 in the Big Ten and coming heartbreakingly close to making the Sweet 16, returns all but one major piece. Bruno Fernando was a revelation as a sophomore, and his imposing interior presence will be missed, but Maryland will trot out their deepest team under Turgeon. The team will be led by two time All Big Ten Senior PG Anthony Cowan and former 5-star/McDonald’s All American/All Big Ten Freshman Jalen “Stix” Smith, who should form one of the most formidable inside/out combinations in the country.

They’re flanked by two sophomore guards, Eric Ayala and Aaron Wiggins, who both shot over 40% from three, as well as Darryl Morsell, a junior who was teammates with Smith in high school and is known as a hard-nosed defender and improving offensive weapon, and Serrell Smith, a microwave-style bench scorer. Ricky Lindo, who was a late addition to the team last year, coming in August before proving surprisingly useful on defense, may start at PF. If he doesn’t it will be 4-star freshman Makhi Mitchell, a local kid who comes in with his identical twin brother Makhel, and is considered a high quality rebounder, passer, finisher and defender. Donta Scott, a forward from Philly, is the next highest rated freshman, who Turgeon has compared to former Maryland star Dez Wells. The two wildcards in the class are fellow Philly standout Hakim Hart, a 6-5 shooter, and the mysterious 7-3 Chol Marial, who was a one point the #1 big man in the 2019 class before missing almost two years with a number of injuries and will likely not be healthy enough to play until at least the winter.

There’s really no reason why Maryland shouldn’t be challenging for the conference championship and a high seed in the NCAA Tournament. Simply put, they have the experience, returning production and high talent level that usually translates into a top 10 college basketball team. There have been plenty of excuses for why Mark Turgeon hasn’t gotten Maryland to that level in years past, but barring extreme injury trouble, those excuses do not exist this season. I’ve allowed myself to personally buy in this time around, and think they will finish 2nd, behind a Michigan State team that mirrors a lot of what Maryland has going for them, but with a Hall of Fame coach. I think they will get a 2 or 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament and after that…who knows.” - Andrew Emmer.

10. Overall Season Outlook

At the start of this preview, we talked about expectations. About how they put everything in perspective. What’s good for one group might not be good enough for another. For me, it’s what has created the negativity surrounding Turgeon and his tenure with the Terps. The results have generally been there. Maryland just hasn’t quite finished when it’s mattered most.

Well, whether fans like it or not, those expectations are back again. Maryland returns more than any Big Ten team outside of East Lansing and the hype has corresponded. In fact, if Michigan State wasn’t returning such a ridiculous amount of pieces, we’d probably be talking about Maryland breaking its conference title drought. In just about any other year, Maryland would probably be projected to win the league.

And the hype here is warranted. Maryland isn’t a “sure thing” heading into this season, but all the pieces are there. The Terps return four starters from a quality team, have a handful of potential stars, and add a really nice recruiting class. This team would really have to under perform to not be in position for a top seed in the Big Ten Tournament this year.

The question, though, is whether Turgeon can close the deal in this big games. Maryland has finished well in the Big Ten standings before with him at the helm, but what’s going to happen in March? While he gets a lot of talent to work with this season, that comes with the heightened expectations. Fans aren’t going to be excited about an early NCAA Tournament exit, regardless of whether that’s fair or not.

So, it’s time to buckle up for what should be a heck of a ride with the Terps this season. Expect some impressive performances and more than a few quality wins.

Big Ten Prediction: 2nd Place