After missing NCAA tournament, Maryland men’s basketball looks to next year with top recruiting class

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By Daniel Oyefusi
For Mitzpeh
@DanielOyefusi

With 1:28 left in the second half of its second round Big Ten tournament game, this university’s men’s basketball team was tied at 53 with the University of Wisconsin. The Terps were staring at a chance to add to a bare NCAA tournament resume. Over the next 88 seconds, sloppy offensive execution and missed free throws doomed the Terps, as they lost to the Badgers 59-54.

Maryland’s last game of the season was a microcosm of their entire season: a team that was talented enough to compete for 40 minutes but couldn’t close the deal in late-game situations.

Combined with the multiple injuries that the team faced over the course of the season, the Terps simply weren’t able to put together enough quality wins to receive a bid to the NCAA tournament.

“Last year we knew we’d be in the NCAA tournament,” sophomore guard Kevin Huerter told The Baltimore Sun, who was second on the team with 14.8 points per game. “The second half of our year went downhill pretty quickly.”

After three straight appearances in the Big Dance, the Terps failed to make the NCAA tournament, or the NIT, finishing with a 19-13 record and 8-10 conference record. While the team was 15-3 at the Xfinity Center, it struggled away from College Park going 2-8 in true road games and 2-2 at neutral sites.

Anthony Cowan Jr. of the Maryland Terrapins dribbles up court against Northwestern Wildcats on February 10, 2018 at the Xfinity Center. Maryland won 73-57. Mitchell Layton/Getty Images.

The team started the season with its non-conference schedule, going 6-2 in its first eight games, including an impressive 79-65 win over a Butler team that would reach the second round of the NCAA tournament. After getting out to a 13-3 record, the Terps struggled with consistency, going 6-10 for the rest of season and dropping three straight games in January.

Maryland’s inability to close games could be encapsulated in one stat: nine losses were by six points or less.

The team’s late-game struggles could partly be attributed to the loss of Justin Jackson. After testing the NBA draft waters last summer but deciding to come back, the sophomore forward was expected to be a huge contributor. However, Jackson re-aggravated a shoulder injury early in the season and underwent surgery for a torn labrum, prematurely ending his season.

A season-ending injury to junior forward Ivan Bender, as well as injuries to senior center Michal Cekovsky and swingman Dion Wiley tested the Terps’ depth throughout the season.

“We’ve kind of had to reinvent ourselves a little bit,” head coach Mark Turgeon told The Baltimore Sun. “You lose two [power forwards], it makes things difficult.”

At a university that was somewhat spoiled by former point guard Melo Trimble’s late-game heroics and leadership over the last three seasons, missing the tournament certainly left a bad taste in the mouths of players, coaches and students across campus.

“I think [the season] was a disappointment, compared to last year,” said Ndiebnso Agbormbai, a senior public health major. “We didn’t do as well as I think many students felt we could have. I was expecting to at least make it to March Madness like UMBC did.”

As the Terps look to regroup and put together a team that will once again compete for supremacy atop the Big Ten, they will have to adjust to a lot of new pieces. Seniors Cevosky, Jared Nickens and Sean Obi are graduating. Jackson declared for the NBA draft and will reportedly sign an agent, ending his two-year run at this university.

Maryland guard Dion Wiley shoots a layup against Northwestern center Barret Benson on February 19, 2018 at the Allstate Arena in Illinois. Icon Sportswire/Getty Images.

Turgeon also announced that Wiley will transfer and look for options elsewhere for his final year of eligibility. Huerter and freshman center Bruno Fernando could put their name into the NBA draft, but the expectation is that both will be back.

With three seniors leaving, Maryland will welcome a top-20 recruiting class, featuring 5-star power forward Jalen Smith, 4-star small forward Aaron Wiggins and 4-star combo guard Eric Ayala.

Former top-50 recruit Schnider Herard, who transferred from Mississippi State University, will be eligible to play in January 2019 and will provide much-needed frontcourt depth. With Wiley transferring, this university will have another scholarship available to potentially grab a graduate transfer.

As far as the 2018-2019 season is concerned, expectations across campus will certainly be subdued, compared to previous seasons. But with more depth, experience and a top recruiting class, the team should be improved and be in the conversation in March for an NCAA berth.

“I think it depends on our recruitment class,” Agbormbai said. “If we get a good class, I think we can do well.”

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