“They out-toughed us,” said Darryl Morsell, a sophomore at the time and the player known as one of the toughest guys on Maryland’s roster.
So here are the No. 9 Terrapins now, heading back to Michigan State (17-8, 9-5 Big Ten), again riding a seven-game winning streak but with few similarities beyond that. Maryland (20-4, 10-3) is atop the conference standings with seven games to go, and Turgeon’s first title of any sort at Maryland is within reach. How much have the Terps managed to close the gap between themselves and the frequent standard-bearer of the conference? Saturday’s game will offer some answers.
A single game, especially one during the regular season, doesn’t define a team’s assessment of itself. But that trip to East Lansing last season catalyzed the development of Jalen Smith. He returned home with his weaknesses glaring. The game against the Spartans served as a stark reminder that Smith was still a lanky 18-year-old who embodied his nickname, “Stix,” a player who could be pushed around by a team such as Michigan State, which went on to win the conference tournament and advance to the Final Four.
That game “let us know how far we were from being elite,” Turgeon said Friday. “And from that game forward, we got a little bit more physical, especially Stix. We were young. They were grown men last year, and we were just these little young guys going in there. We battled. … This year, we’re a little bit more mature.”
Immediately after that game, Turgeon called it an “eye-opener” for Smith. There was no silver lining. The freshman “just didn’t have a great night,” Turgeon said. Smith left with six points, a career-low three rebounds and a two-hour infomercial about how he needed to improve. Thinking back a year later, Kyle Tarp, Maryland’s director of basketball performance, called the game a “black cup of coffee” for Smith.
Smith didn’t wait for the offseason or for when the Terps had a lull between matchups. He began working extra with Tarp, in the weight room and on the court after practice, going through drills that simulated playing through physicality.
“For Stix, it was like, ‘Okay, well, let's take on the challenge,’” Tarp said. “Because he wants to be great. He doesn't want to be average. He doesn't want to not be able to match up with anybody in the country. So he took it head on.”
The improvement revealed itself as the season progressed. Smith peaked in the NCAA tournament, playing his best games in March. But the Terps didn’t want to put too big of a load on him during the season. Tarp said “you don’t want to go too fast too soon” with a young player. So after Smith had spent a full season in the program, his sophomore year offered more of an opportunity to make that leap.
Smith didn’t test the NBA waters. He promptly announced that he planned to return for his second season at Maryland. While some of his counterparts around the country mulled over their decisions, Smith began his offseason work.
Smith spent his freshman season watching Bruno Fernando experience a burst of improvement as a sophomore. Fernando, praised for his work ethic and vocal leadership, helped show others on the young 2018-19 team how to approach the game.
“You want to be Bruno? You want to have the success that he had? He showed you how to do it,” Tarp said. “Guys that don’t follow the bread crumbs are either too lazy or just stubborn. Let’s learn from the examples that have been set, let’s take those pieces, let’s still be yourself and then hopefully you’re heading in that right way, too.”
Smith’s physical development has been apparent through his sophomore season in matchups with players such as Iowa’s Luka Garza and Ohio State’s Kaleb Wesson. His test Saturday will come by way of Xavier Tillman, the Spartans’ 6-8 junior. Equally important but less visible, Tarp said, is how Smith has kept up with his new lifestyle outside the team facility — consuming enough calories to maintain his weight and getting proper rest.
The rewards have been abundant, with more probably still on the way. Heading into this game against Michigan State, Smith has seven straight double-doubles, a streak tied for third on the program’s all-time list. The sophomore is averaging 15.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.3 blocks this season. Smith’s second-half performance at Northwestern last month willed Maryland to a come-from-behind win. Five days later he scored a career-high 29 points against Indiana, leading Maryland to another road win.
Smith’s block in the waning seconds of the Terps’ game Tuesday against Nebraska denied the Cornhuskers’ attempt for a game-winning layup. With Smith standing near the basket and Cam Mack driving toward the rim, Turgeon said he felt confident. He knew Smith would block the shot. That’s the type player he has been this season.
“He’s hoopin’,” senior Anthony Cowan Jr. said. “He’s doing what he’s supposed to do.”
Smith and his teammates pledged to take a jump forward this season, fueled by their painful NCAA tournament exit and the gap between good and great. Cowan, the Terps’ top scorer at 16.3 points per game, has led this team well. Sophomores Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala have recently settled in after slumps. Morsell remains the team’s key defensive cog. This is a team that has the right pieces. It’s no longer the group of developing youngsters who traveled to Michigan State a season ago.
Maryland’s winning streak last season didn’t have the same tests that the team’s 2020 burst of success has featured. The Terps have won in difficult environments such as Indiana, then again last week at Illinois with the top spot in the Big Ten up for grabs.
Michigan State fell out of the top 25 this week, but that doesn’t speak for its talent and potential or how much the Breslin Center crowd will challenge the Terps.
This Maryland team, though, is far different. It’s mostly the same players from last season, the same core of contributors. But the Terps have grown and developed because they wanted to improve. And the loss in East Lansing helped show them why they had to take that step.