- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 7, 2019

COLLEGE PARK — The scene at the Xfinity Center one year ago was embarrassing.

The Maryland Terrapins hosted a nationally-ranked Michigan team on Feb. 24, 2018. Maryland’s hopes for a postseason berth had withered out by that point, but things grew worse. The Terrapins trailed Michigan 54-24 at halftime and their fans booed them on their way to the locker room — on Senior Day, no less — on the way to a whimper of a loss.

Maryland has come far enough in just one season to make that day a distant memory.


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They hosted Michigan last Sunday — ranked, again — and though Maryland ultimately fell 69-62, it was a tightly contested game throughout. The students in the crowd were jumping rather than booing. Rather than being run off their own court, Maryland hung with one of the best teams in the country.

“I was really pleased with out effort during the game,” coach Mark Turgeon said Thursday, “and then I went back and watched the film, and we were even a little better than I thought we were in the Michigan game.”



Sunday was no moral victory, and Maryland (21-9, 12-7 Big Ten) is carrying a two-game losing streak into its Senior Night game Friday against Minnesota. But wins over Purdue, Iowa and Wisconsin and a KenPom ranking of 19 are more representative of the turnaround season the Terrapins have pieced together.

Thanks to Bruno Fernando’s blossoming into a star, one of the top freshman classes in the country and a coach who seems to have found his way off the hot seat, Maryland has transformed from last year’s Big Ten also-ran squad to a projected No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament that could be a threat on the national stage.

Fernando is now up to 19 double-doubles this season, sixth most in Division I. His season averages of 14.1 points and 10.5 rebounds per game have made him a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award finalist for center of the year. His dunks have invigorated the Maryland crowd, and his overall improvement from a year ago has pleased Turgeon and his staff.

Darryl Morsell, a sophomore guard who arrived at Maryland the same time as Fernando, feels the center has excelled because he’s adjusted to the speed of the college game.

“He was a guy who played with a lot of emotion,” Morsell said. “But last year, I felt the game moved a little fast for him. In high school he was bigger than everybody, so regardless of how he moved he was still able to dominate. But this year, he’s just way more patient in the post. He’s patient defensively, and he’s learned a lot.”

Fernando, a sophomore, is emblematic of how youthful the team is. The Terrapins’ freshmen and sophomores have accounted for 80.9 percent of the team’s total minutes. Turgeon has been known to point out he has the fifth-youngest team in the country, but it’s “young” more in the Kentucky one-and-done sense than simply a green group.

While the first-year trio of Eric Ayala, Jalen Smith and Aaron Wiggins don’t get nearly as much national press as Duke’s Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish, they were all top 100 recruits last year and formed the core of Maryland’s freshman class that 247Sports ranked seventh in the country.

Starting wing Ayala (.432 3-point percentage) and sixth man Wiggins (.419) have given Maryland more deep threats than before. Smith, nicknamed “Stix” for his thin 6-foot-10 frame, has paired up with Fernando down low and averages 11.2 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.1 blocks a game.

What has helped Maryland’s freshmen grow throughout the season? In February, Ayala chalked it up to Turgeon’s encouraging attitude.

“He’s got a tremendous amount of confidence in us. He never lets us down,” Ayala said. “With a young team, with young freshmen, the ups and downs can get to you as a freshman. But Coach Turgeon — and not just Coach Turgeon, our whole coaching staff, they do a great job of keeping us uplifted and making sure we’re confident.”

The Terrapins also show up defensively. They’ve held then-No. 12 Purdue to 56 points, Wisconsin to 60 and Nebraska to 45. Maryland leads the Big Ten in rebounding margin (+8.9), ranks second in blocks (8.7 per game) and ranks third in field goal percentage allowed (. 396).

“Defense is something that Coach Turge emphasizes every day,” Fernando said in February. “When we can tell ourselves that we’re locked in, we’re a much different team when we’re locked on defense.”

Turgeon comes up again and again when Terrapins players speak with the press. Entering this season, Turgeon’s eighth in College Park, there were whispers he could be out the door if Maryland posted another disappointing season. Multiple media outlets pinned him in their “on the hot seat” lists before the season.

Maryland is now guaranteed to make its fourth NCAA Tournament appearance in five years, enough to cool that seat for the moment. The next step would be success after Selection Sunday; Turgeon has never coached a team past the Sweet 16. But he has a locker room that believes in him as Maryland tries to spin its bounceback year into a tournament run.

“Coach Turgeon is everything,” senior Andrew Terrell said. “He really keeps us level-headed. Without him, we wouldn’t have a captain to our ship … Not many coaches can take a group that is this young, this inexperienced, and do what we’ve done.”

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