- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 15, 2019

COLLEGE PARK — It was Mark Turgeon’s favorite thing to say last season: His Maryland Terrapins were the fifth-youngest team in Division I basketball.

He said it again Tuesday, just before the dawn of the new season, but this time with some meaningful context.

“I think about where we were last year at this time to where we are today, how are practices are going compared to last year at this time, it’s really nice,” the Maryland coach said. “You have some really good experience. I’m really proud of my guys because last year, we were extremely young, I think fourth- or fifth-youngest team in the country.

“But because of the way the season ended at the buzzer to go to the Sweet 16 and have a chance to come back home to play in D.C., it’s made our guys really hungry.”

With that hunger comes the hype. For the first time in four years, the Terrapins are considered one of the nation’s best teams in the preseason. The official Associated Press poll isn’t out yet, but everyone from college hoops expert Andy Katz to ESPN’s and NBC Sports’ college basketball previews believe Maryland is a top-10 team — possibly even a top-5 team.

That’s hardly a topic of conversation among Terrapins players, junior guard Darryl Morsell said.

“We got a group message, and our goal is to just get better every single day,” Morsell said. “We’re not focused on preseason rankings, what people are talking about and stuff. We’re just focused on our team … Our message is just conquering the day. We can’t control what’s happening tomorrow. Yesterday was yesterday. We just focused on the task at hand and just doing it to the best of our ability.”

Morsell, junior Joshua Tomaic and especially senior guard Anthony Cowan will be responsible for leadership roles. Cowan, who has a shot at the preseason All-American team, pulled out of the NBA draft last spring to return to College Park for his senior year. Turgeon praised Cowan, who is not the most outspoken player, for showing his leadership side so far in fall practices.

“In a world where it’s not great to become a senior, I’m really proud of Anthony. Maybe he can make it cool again to do it,” Turgeon said. “Anthony came back to win. Anthony’s done a lot of things with scoring points and steals and assists, but he wants his legacy to be winning, and winning at a high level.”

Cowan returned along with three other starters from last year; Bruno Fernando, now in the NBA, was the only notable departure. Last year’s touted freshman class of Jalen “Stix” Smith, Eric Ayala, Aaron Wiggins and Ricky Lindo Jr. now have a year of college experience to draw from.

“Last year pretty much just motivated me to be better and pretty much get stronger, work on all my weaknesses and just overall be a better teammate to my team.”

Smith was one of several players to put on muscle mass in the offseason — 10 to 12 pounds worth, in his case. Turgeon has taken to calling the formerly lanky “Stix” by a new nickname: “Logs.”

“I haven’t heard that name around here,” Smith said with a smile. “A lot of people are going by that now, but I’ll still always be Stix.”

The new freshman class is headlined by twins Makhi and Makhel Mitchell from Woodrow Wilson High School in the District. Both are 6-foot-10, but Makhi was the higher-ranked prospect as a 4-star recruit. Still, they came to Maryland as a package deal.

Another freshman to watch is Chol Marial, a 7-foot-2 center from South Sudan. Marial underwent multiple surgeries to address stress fractures in both his legs. Turgeon said the program was hopeful that Marial will be cleared to play at a Nov. 25 meeting with doctors.

In the meantime, Marial has begun some lifting and shooting — he just has to keep his feet on the ground, whatever he does, to keep his legs safe.

“It’ll stay that way until the swelling out of his knees is gone. But he’s doing terrific,” Turgeon said. “The doctor couldn’t have been happier with where he is, and he feels much better than he did before surgery.”

Fortunately for Marial and the other freshmen, nobody will need to be pressed into action earlier than they’re ready. After pushing their young, green roster last year, Turgeon said he’s happy that the depth will allow some players to “learn by sitting” from time to time.

“I went back and watched every game when I was traveling recruiting the last month or so,” Turgeon said. “Wow, we were so young. And what the guys were able to do — now those guys are really grown men to me now as sophomores, and they’ll help us.”

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