But this week, the marathon of conference matchups subsided with a lull in the schedule. The Terps planned to play at home Saturday against Nebraska, but the game had to be postponed after members of the Cornhuskers program tested positive for the coronavirus. Even if Maryland had played, the five-day layoff would have been the team’s longest break from competition since the middle of December, when players were finishing the fall semester academically.
“When you go straight [from] finals to La Salle to on the road — that was really a grind for our guys,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “And then the league is just terrific, so it's like every night is so hard.”
The Terps (7-6, 2-5 Big Ten) scheduled Division II Wingate, a school near Charlotte, on short notice, hoping that game will help keep them in a rhythm until the conference slate resumes Tuesday at No. 7 Michigan. (Without adding an opponent, Maryland would have had eight days between games.) But even with the Wingate game Friday, the Terps have a chance to mentally recharge and return to full strength.
Starting point guard Eric Ayala could not play in Maryland’s most recent game against then-No. 12 Illinois because of a groin injury. Turgeon said Ayala will not play against Wingate, a game that certainly doesn’t rise to the level of importance that it would be worth the risk of Ayala taking a step back in his recovery. Turgeon said he hopes Ayala can have a light workout on his own with an assistant coach Saturday and will be able to return to practice in some capacity Sunday.
Ayala initially hurt his groin during Maryland’s game at Purdue on Christmas Day, and he tweaked it again against Iowa last week. Ayala’s status was considered a game-time decision heading into the trip to Illinois, and Turgeon told him: “If you’re hurt, sit out, man. You played your butt off for me for 2½ years. Sit out.”
The Terps have had multiple players dealing with minor injuries. Junior guard Aaron Wiggins had an elbow issue earlier this season, and senior guard Darryl Morsell had surgery two weeks ago to repair a fractured bone in his face. He missed Maryland’s trip to Indiana, and in his return against Iowa, Morsell didn’t play well. At Illinois a few days later, Morsell scored a career-high 19 points and led the Terps to the upset win.
“It's been an unbelievably tough stretch,” Turgeon said after the Illinois game. “Got some guys banged up, and they just competed their tails off in all facets.”
During the past six games, which spanned just over two weeks, both Wiggins and sophomore forward Donta Scott played in every game and averaged more than 32 minutes. Maryland relies on a core of veteran players, including Ayala, Wiggins, Morsell and Scott, but the game against Wingate should allow some newcomers to gain competitive experience. Freshman guards Marcus Dockery and Aquan Smart haven’t played more than 10 minutes in a game during conference play.
James Graham III, a 6-foot-8 wing, arrived in College Park a few weeks ago after he decided to graduate early and join the program. Graham, 17, initially signed with Maryland as a member of the 2021 class, but with the NCAA’s eligibility waiver given to all athletes because of the coronavirus, Graham still can play four seasons after this year. Graham has appeared in two games, totaling 14 minutes, and Friday’s matchup could give him a chance to record more playing time while acclimating to the college game in a lower-stakes setting.
“It’s an opportunity for all of us, one, just to get another game under our belt, and hopefully some guys will get some minutes,” Turgeon said. “We’ll see. You can’t script things. … But, yeah, you’d like to see some of the young guys get a few minutes and play well and get more comfortable.”
Even though Maryland only has two conference wins, the team still is No. 39 in the NCAA’s NET rankings and No. 45 in Ken Pomeroy’s analytics-based ratings. Maryland’s lone nonconference loss came in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge at No. 12 Clemson. Playing in the Big Ten, which touts its depth, boosts Maryland’s strength of schedule and its NCAA tournament résumé. Adding a game against a low-tier Division I team could have hurt Maryland’s NET ranking, while facing a Division II team will not.
So Maryland invited Wingate to Xfinity Center, which allows the Terps to face an opponent rather than simply practicing as a team during this brief break in conference play.
“We play in practice against each other for months up until this point,” senior forward Galin Smith said. “So playing against other people, different defenses, a different style of play — it really helps us be able to stay in rhythm and to get guys to be able to come out and contribute.”