Saturday, February 29, 2020

Do the 2020 Terps Have What it Takes to Go Back to Atlanta?

Let’s talk Terps, shall we? Let’s. Talk. Terrrpppssss! Let’s Gooooooo Mary-LAND… 

For my money this has been the most exciting season in a long time, perhaps since the Greivis era when we thought the Terps could make a deep run in the tournament. In the 2009-10 season, the Greivis-led Terps (with Eric Hayes, Sean Mosely, Jordan Williams, Landon Milbourne, remember those guys?) went 23-8, 13-3 in the ACC and lost to Michigan St. in the second round of the tournament on a last second 3-pointer. Man that one stung. Michigan St. went on to a Final Four run and I always felt that that Maryland team could have done the same but alas, it wasn’t to be.

In 2015, the Terps, in their first year in the Big Ten (or B1G, which, side note, has 14 teams) went 26-5, 14-4 B1G and also lost in the round of 32, this time to West Virginia in a game that wasn’t real close. That Terps team also gave us lots of thrills, led by then freshman sensation Melo Trimble and tough-as-nails senior Dez Wells. 

Do we dare get our hopes up this season for a return trip to Atlanta for the Final Four? … Site of the 2002 Final Four, where my favorite team of any kind ever, the Juan Dixon-Lonny Baxter-Chris Wilcox-Byron Mouton-Steve Blake-Drew Nicholas-and-I’ll-throw-in-Tahj Holden Terps, coached by Gary Williams, I miss him, closed the whole deal, running through, ahem, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Connecticut, Kansas, and Indiana in the process. I could write 3,000 words without Googling much about that team, but suffice to say they provided memories for a lifetime for Terps fans; but since that time, we’ve been searching and hoping for similar magic.  

By the way, in writing this, I keep going to Wikipedia to remember some names and records and then I remember other things from other seasons, especially THAT 01-02 season. Here’s a video I made from the last game ever at Cole, where Ron Herbst and I went to pretty much every home game. Scroll to about 4:20 to see me and Herbst choking up about the Terps as the curtain closes on the regular season and Cole Field House. Go to this one and scroll to about the 1-minute mark to see Herbst with Scott Van Pelt, with hair, standing outside Cole. 

OK, snapping back to 2020, where I’m 50 (Jesus) and don’t broadcast Terps pre-game shows anymore (I did that for a couple seasons) or drive down to CP for games as much anymore (because life?) but I still make watching Maryland basketball appointment TV,  and still text things like “we’re gonna lose” or “I’m freaking out” or “why can’t good things happen for us?” during games to Terps fan friends. 

But here’s the thing or A thing about the 2019-20 Terps: good, fun, magical things ARE happening to and for this team and it’s past time to recognize that and have fun with it and appreciate it, even if writing this long about Maryland basketball for the first time in about a decade for me is likely to jinx them but that’s just a chance I’m gonna have to take.

If your heart can handle it, it’s been a really fun and memorable season. And here, let’s stop for a moment to recognize that if you only put stock in how far your team goes in the tournament in order to evaluate whether or not it was a ‘good’ season, I think you miss out on the joy and the fun of a great ride. One team will win the Final Four, but even if Maryland loses in the first round of the tournament (OK that would suuuuck), it’s been a lot of fun and thrills already to follow this edition of the Terps. According to this article in the Washington Post, they’ve won 7 games this season after trailing at the half, and in three of those, they trailed by 14 or more points. None was more surprising or shocking or thrilling or fun (if you stayed up, @bruce smith, sorry) than the 74-73, did-that-really-just-happen win at Minnesota on Wed. night. For the love of Bentley’s that was fun (I was always more of a Sante Fe guy, didn’t actually go to Maryland, by the way, went to JMU went Lefty got there, I did take one graduate school course and then dropped out to go work at Advantage Int’l; got a B in statistics, so there’s that). 

Anyway, right now, as I write this, ESPN is setting up shop in College Park for a GameDay Terps-a-palooza at Xfinity Center (I miss Cole Field House), Maryland is ranked 9th in the nation with a 23-5 record and sits stop the BIG 14 with a league record of 13-4. In the latest Bracketology they are predicted to be a 2 seed but still have 3 tough games - home vs. Michigan St. and Michigan and at Rutgers (17-1 at home) remaining. 

Here are some things I love about this team:
Anthony Cown’s grit. Cowan is the Terps’ senior starting point guard, he’s started every game since he got to College Park; he’s the kind of player who opposing teams must feel like is in his 10th season… and he’s a joy to watch. Cowan is undersized at a listed 6-feet (I doubt it) and he’s lightning quick, fearless, and the team’s undeniable leader. He has made some HUGE shots this season, none bigger than when he took over at Michigan State and made three threes in the final minutes to lead the Terps to a big win. Cowan’s downside is that he sometimes gets a little cold from the floor and his size can, at times, hinder his ability to finish at the basket after he beats his man off the dribble, which he can do to pretty much anyone. I love Cowan, he’s our guy, maybe just maybe, in the same way that Juan Dixon was our guy in 2002. In that season, Dixon, at a certain point, just took over and decided that Maryland basketball wasn’t going to lose anymore. I hope Cowan can do that for the 2020 Terps.

The evolution of Jalen Smith, aka Stix. Fun fact… my nephew Jake Abel worked out with Stix and a private coach when Jake was about 12 and Stix was 10. At the time, Jake was a sharp-shooting guard and Stix was a gangly, well, 10-year-old. Jake is a wonderful young guy and a playground hoops beast I am sure, but will go on to success in life in ways not involving basketball. Stix is now 6-10 and ripped and became a superstar before our eyes this season. He’s not skinny any longer and he’s not just a leaper, shot blocker, rim protector and low-post guy; the big man has a soft touch, shoots 36% from 3 and can handle himself anywhere on the court. My only complaint about Stix is that sometimes he doesn’t DEMAND or get the ball enough. Of all of the Maryland players, he is the clearest NBA prospect and will likely leave this season and get drafted somewhere in the teens. Which is fine, because he should leave to pursue a professional career, but it is unfortunate (for fans) that we don’t get to see guys like Stix continue to develop in college anymore. 

Who doesn’t love Darryl Morsell, our ‘glue guy?’ Morsell has a lot of Byron Mouton in him, doesn’t he? Plays sticky D, hustles at all times and seems like a great team guy. His game-winning 3 at Minnesota will go down as one of the greatest endings to a regular season Maryland game in history, that was so cool. And Morsell just seems like the kind of guy every championship team needs; the kind of player that guards the other team’s toughest player and steps up in key moments. Morsell isn’t a pure shooter and might be a tad undersized as a forward, but perhaps it doesn’t matter; he’s got a ton of heart and he’s fun to root for. 

There’s really only 3 more players on this Maryland team who Turgeon trusts, and they are Aaron Wiggins, Eric Ayala and freshman ‘he might be great’ Donta Scott. Each has had big moments this season and have drifted in and out of prominence. Wiggins might be the biggest X factor. He’s a streaky shooter who is also, by the way, 6-6 and a solid defender but shooting only 37% this season, which isn’t great. Wiggins was on NBA first round watch lists when the season started… he might become that guy and I’m sure he feels he still has a lot to prove. This is not entirely a bad thing. So… if Wiggins can find that stroke down the stretch, he makes Maryland really hard to beat. 

Ayala… very solid sophomore guard who sometimes is great and sometimes disappears but Maryland obviously needs him to take pressure off Cowan in terms of ball handling; and Donta Scott is the kind of guy who will likely emerge next year as a star; right now he’s like the fourth option on offense but I just get the feeling that Donta Scott has a ton of game we haven’t seen yet. 

Finally, let’s talk about Coach Mark Turgeon and the Turg era. Do we like this guy? Do we believe in him? Guess how many seasons Turgeon has been at Maryland? Four or five, right? Wrong, it’s been 9. Nine! The knock is that he hasn’t made a deep run in the tournament. And the fiery Gary Williams, who took Maryland to the promised land, was never going to be an easy act to follow. But let’s give some credit where it’s due; Turgeon has kept Maryland mostly ranked and relevant during his tenure and has brought some big-time players to College Park. 

I have issues with end-of-game and end-of-half execution sometimes, but coaches only can do so much. At the end of the day, or game, it’s the players who have to make plays. The way Morsell and Cowan and Stix and Ayala and Wiggins and Scott have done this season. They’ve battled and you have to give credit to Turgeon for keeping his team fighting even when they get down -- and for some reason they regularly get down -- and then battle to the end, and win a whole lot more than they lose. 

I mean, what do we want from the teams we root for? To win every game? To be invincible champions? That would be nice but it isn’t real, that isn’t how this works. So what Turg has delivered is a high quality team that fights and wins a lot more than it loses. He’s put a team on the floor that has delivered some amazing memories and wins; a team that seems to really love playing together and might just be GREAT or historic. This team might be good enough to go to Atlanta. And they might not, because that’s sports. So I’ll take it, and if you love Maryland basketball, you should be excited about this team, and appreciative of the job that Turgeon has done. He, and they, have earned it.