Heading into March Madness, the experience was new for almost every player on Maryland’s young team. Seven members of the Terrapins’ eight-man rotation had never played in an NCAA tournament game, and Anthony Cowan Jr., the lone returner, had never won on the stage.
Freshman guard Eric Ayala watched tournament games as a kid, filled out his bracket and hoped to make it there. But as he sat in a locker room filled with reporters before the team’s first pre-tournament shoot-around in Jacksonville, Fla., Ayala mentioned how from the outside, all he had ever seen was the basketball — not everything else that surrounds the games.
Now he knows. And all his teammates, many of whom will return next season, know, too. But after LSU’s late basket erased Maryland’s hopes for a comeback win in the second round, the players had a hard time looking ahead when the loss still felt so fresh.
When asked whether that game would be one the players carried through the offseason, Cowan said he wasn’t sure because it was his “first time ever going through something like this.”
Through the course of just two games, the players felt the entire spectrum of emotion within the NCAA tournament. Even after the first round, Coach Mark Turgeon could see how this tournament experience would benefit his program next year.
Turgeon pointed to Maryland’s loss at home to Michigan late in the regular season. The Terps led midway through the second half, but they let the Wolverines answer and eventually lost by seven. In Jacksonville, when Turgeon looked back on that game, he said Michigan played better down the stretch because it understood what was at stake. The Wolverines played in the national title game last year and advanced to the Sweet 16 this past weekend.
So after Turgeon’s group narrowly beat Belmont on the first full day of the tournament, his players suddenly felt what it’s like to be in the winning locker room during the most important weeks in college basketball.
“Next year, when these young guys are back and we’re fighting to get to the tournament or win a conference championship, they know what the reward is,” Turgeon said. “We didn’t know it. So that’s what was big about” the win over Belmont.
Then two days later, the Terps felt the opposite. Both of Maryland’s tournament games hinged on the final play, and this time, the Terps’ defense couldn’t hold. Freshman Jalen Smith blamed himself for letting Tremont Waters maneuver around him and score, even though the 6-foot-10 forward from Baltimore had just played two of the best games of his career. He led Maryland in scoring both days but left the court in tears after the loss.
Sophomore guard Darryl Morsell, who played with Smith in high school, looked across the locker room to where Smith sat quietly, still visibly upset, and said it’s probably hard for him in the moment to see what he might learn from the loss. Morsell said the freshman is “going to grow up a lot” as a result of these games.
“Everybody is going to remember this feeling when it comes back to next March Madness,” Smith said. “Everybody is going to remember the losing, crying in the locker room. Just going to work even harder next year.”
Maryland probably will have seven of eight rotation players back next season. Smith and Bruno Fernando, the two who could leave for the NBA, both said Saturday that they had not made a decision about their futures. But Fernando is projected to receive a guaranteed contract as a first-round pick, which usually compels players to leave. He tested the NBA draft waters last summer but opted to return for his sophomore season, and he made significant strides that will position him well for this year’s draft.
Meanwhile, Smith fell out of many mock drafts during his up-and-down freshman campaign that at times showed he needed more time to physically develop, making a route like the one Fernando took seem beneficial. But Smith impressed during the NCAA tournament, and a strong showing at the NBA draft combine in mid-May could sway his decision. After the combine in Chicago, players have until June 10 to withdraw their names from the draft.
Maryland is also set to add three freshmen this summer: four-star center Makhi Mitchell as well as three-star prospects Donta Scott and Mitchell’s twin, Makhel. If Fernando leaves, Maryland will have another scholarship available.
Following the LSU loss, Ayala said knowing that game marked the end of the season with this group of players meant more than the defeat itself. This group won’t play together again, but next year’s team probably won’t look much different.
“I never think my program is in bad shape,” Turgeon said after the second-round loss. “That’s just my opinion. I always think we’re in good shape. I always think we’re going to win the next game, I’m going to get the next player. We’ve done some pretty good things. We’d like to do better, but I think we’re in great shape.”