March Madness 2021: What you need to know about the Maryland Terrapins

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Ryan Wormeli
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What you need to know about the Maryland Terrapins originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

Maryland basketball is in a strange position entering the 2021 NCAA Tournament. On the one hand, they outperformed preseason expectations to compete in a historically strong Big Ten conference and wind up comfortably making the big dance.

On the other hand, Terps fans have much bigger yearly goals than simply making the tournament. Given the roster limitations and, of course, the coronavirus pandemic, it's hard to feel too upset with a postseason berth. And Mark Turgeon and company do deserve a lot of credit for navigating the most tumultuous season in college basketball history without a single COVID-19 outbreak.

But this year's Maryland squad has toyed with its fans all season. Prior to the year, they looked like perhaps the weakest roster since Maryland joined the conference and the 4-9 start didn't do them any wonders. Then, the Terps got hot in February and clinched their tournament bid, looking like a completely different team in the process.

Now, they've lost three of four entering the tournament, including games to Northwestern and Penn State.

All in all, this is a team with a high floor, but perhaps not as high a ceiling as fans would like. That's more than some other programs can say, but it hasn't left College Park overly hopeful for a postseason run.

Here are five things to know about the Terrapins:

Small ball

After several seasons in a row with a dominant big man (the Terps have had at least one, and sometimes two, of Jalen Smith, Bruno Fernando and Diamond Stone in four of the past five years) Maryland fell back to Earth in 2020-21.

This year's iteration of the Terps is heavily reliant on its backcourt. Playing small isn't just the best option for Mark Turgeon - it's the only option. And for the most part, it's worked.

Donta Scott is better suited to a forward role, but his defensive rebounding and team-leading three-point shooting have helped create mismatches for Maryland on offense while not giving up too much on defense. This style of play has left the Terps very susceptible to elite big men, which the Big Ten had plenty of this season, which makes them more dependent on the right matchups to win games.

But for all the flaws on the roster, it's easier to play small ball when a team has the kind of veteran guard play Maryland gets from Eric Ayala, Aaron Wiggins and Darryl Morsell. That's two juniors and a senior, the three of whom have won a lot of games together in College Park.

If the Terps run into a dominant post presence in the tournament, their run will almost assuredly be up. But if they can avoid oversized opponents, they may have a run in them yet. 

Defense first

Part of the reason the Terps have managed to play well despite their lack of size is the uniformity of their players (their entire starting five is around the same height and all have great length) has meant their switching defense is extremely effective.

The biggest key to the Terps' midseason turnaround was a renewed focus on defense. Maryland has the 26th-most efficient defense in the country this season, but since January 23 that number jumps to seventh. They've been a top 10 defense in the nation for nearly two months, and it's made a huge difference.

Maryland uses their length to disrupt passing lanes, constantly double-team opposing big men, and switch all around the perimeter. The head of the snake is Morsell who earned recognition as the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.

Maryland also plays at a slow pace, which means most of their games end up "first to 60 wins." It often turns out ugly, but the Terps don't care if it means they're winning.

Lower expectations

Despite their superb defense, this is the first NCAA Tournament for Maryland under Mark Turgeon in which they are underdogs in the opening round.

A 10-seed might seem low, especially when last year's group was projected to earn a top-three seed prior to the COVID-19 shutdown. But even Turgeon has admitted it was fair for this year's roster.

Maryland has no bad losses on the season according to the committee, though fans who watched the last two games of the regular season might beg to differ. And they have some great wins, including on the road against Wisconsin and Minnesota when those teams were nearly unbeatable at home and also on the road without Ayala against Illinois in perhaps the most impressive result of any team this season.

The metrics like the Terps even if they don't love them. But either way, this is a clear underdog in their matchup with UConn and they will be an underdog in every game they play this March.

Maryland has struggled in the past when heavily favored, often playing down to their competition. But they've been at their best all season when their backs are against the wall. They'll have a chance to continue that pattern this weekend.

Last chance for Morsell

It's a little under-discussed, but Morsell has sneakily turned into one of the best Terps of the Turgeon era. He's spent four years in College Park, and now he has his final chance at a postseason run.

Morsell has improved more in college than any other player under Turgeon. He made just three total three-pointers his freshman year on an abysmal 12% shooting, but he's turned into a player capable of knocking down open threes in big moments. And his defense has improved to the point of winning conference awards for his ability to lock down the opponent's best players night in and night out - a skill he'll need Saturday against UConn superstar James Bouknight.

Turgeon also calls Morsell perhaps the best leader he's had on any of his rosters. Morsell is a vocal teammate on and off the court, and he's been an essential "glue guy" for the Terps for the past two years. But even that undersells his impact as a player who can get out in transition and get into the paint better than most players on the current team.

Morsell isn't a superstar, but he's a deserving fan favorite and one of the most underrated players in college basketball. And if he can find a way to lead Maryland on a magical March run, he may just see his jersey in the rafters of Xfinity Center one day. 

Turgeon's future

It doesn't seem right to think about the future in the middle of preparing for a postseason run, but it's also impossible to ignore the conversation surrounding head coach Mark Turgeon.

By all accounts, Turgeon is a great representative of the University of Maryland. He does things the right way, and he's won a lot of games in College Park. But he's also now spent 10 seasons leading the Terps with essentially zero postseason success to point to.

For a team accustomed to Sweet 16 runs in even Gary Williams' down years, and Final Four runs at his peak, a decade with just one second weekend of the NCAA Tournament to show for it is a tough pill to swallow.

Maryland isn't in a great place financially, and Turgeon is still owed $6 million over the next two seasons so firing him will be difficult. And frankly, he probably doesn't deserve to be fired - this is a team that won the Big Ten just last season, and it's not his fault the best team of his tenure was robbed of a chance to make noise in March.

And it's not just last season. Turgeon has been near the top of the conference almost every season since 2015.

But if AD Damon Evans isn't going to fire Turgeon, he probably needs to extend him. It's impossible for coaches to recruit with just two years left on their deals, which is where Turgeon stands. But has he earned an actual extension? Will fan support dwindle if they have to sign up for another half-dozen years with more of the same? Does Evans give him an extension, but with more manageable buyout options? Does he nudge Turgeon to leave of his own accord?

Fans have ten seasons' worth of data to evaluate Turgeon from afar, but it's possible Evans is waiting to see what happens this March to make a final determination. And that would mean this upcoming weekend has a lot more riding on it for the future of the program than just a single postseason.