Photo Courtesy of Maryland Athletics

Season Preview: Maryland men’s basketball looks to live up to expectations with revamped lineup

By Logan Hill and Noah Ferguson

For the first time in over 600 days, Maryland men’s basketball will take the floor in front of a raucous Xfinity Center crowd.

After advancing to the Round of 32 in last year’s NCAA Tournament, coach Mark Turgeon’s squad has its sights set on more—boasting a refurbished lineup loaded with talent of all sizes and ages.

With the 2021-22 season on the horizon, here is a preview of what to expect from the 21st-ranked Terps as they prepare to take on Quinnipiac on Tuesday evening.

New faces in important places

After saying goodbye to starters Aaron Wiggins and Darryl Morsell this past offseason, head coach Mark Turgeon had some lineup revamping to do.

With a plethora of gaping holes in Maryland’s starting five, Turgeon turned to the transfer portal—reeling in graduate transfers Fatts Russell and Xavier Green along with junior Qudus Wahab to help fill in the gaps.

These veteran players will look to have an immediate impact for Turgeon’s squad as the season commences.

Russell will likely fill the starting point guard role after four seasons at Rhode Island University, and already showed flashes of his potential in Maryland’s exhibition win over Fayetteville State. The Terps’ primary ball-handler racked up 10 points and two assists in just 20 minutes of play in the 89-40 win in early November.

“One thing I love about Fatts is his will to win,” senior guard Eric Ayala said. “I know he wants to win, and he’s somebody I trust 1000%… he plays with that chip on his shoulder like we all do.”

And Russell isn’t the only confident graduate transfer that will play a large role in Turgeon’s scheme.

Green, the Big Ten’s oldest player at 25 years old, will look to bring a savvy veteran presence off the bench for the Terps this season.

“[Green] is here to want to be a great defender, be a great [rebounder] with his size,” Turgeon said. “Very fast, very athletic… and then he’s got a really good midrange.”

Fans return to Xfinity Center

Last time fans had the chance to watch Maryland men’s basketball in action, the Terps were cutting down the nets after clinching their first ever Big Ten regular season championship. 

That was back in March 2020. A lot has changed since then.

“We’re just really excited,” Turgeon said. “We’re [really] excited about that, just having fans in the stands.”

The Covid-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments and kept fans away from stadiums and arenas for most of 2020 and the beginning of 2021. Now with the distribution of vaccinations and the use of masks, fans can return to cheer on their favorite teams in person.

The return to normalcy may present some challenges early, however, as teams re-adjust to deafening venues.

“Before, we could hear whatever coach said on the bench,” Donta Scott said. “Now, it’s kind of hard to hear, so it takes being a little bit more independent as a team.”

Fans attending games at the Xfinity Center will see a much different Maryland team than they saw that day. Only three players remain from the team that last took court in front of fans. At that time, Eric Ayala, Scott and Hakim Hart provided depth to a Maryland team that was led by dynamic point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. and athletic big man Jalen Smith. 

Now, the trio of remaining Terps figure to factor heavily in any success Maryland has this season.

“I’m excited,” Ayala said. “Even the exhibition game, I know it wasn’t a real one but it felt great, just being out there, competing and having everyone back.”

One last ride: Eric Ayala

Ayala returns for his senior season, becoming the unquestioned leader of Turgeon’s squad. With 81 career starts to his name, Ayala is expected to be the catalyst for taking this year’s Maryland squad to where they want to go. 

“I think there is a sense of urgency, defensively,” Turgeon said. “Making sure his teammates are doing the right thing. He’s been a whole different kid. I know he’s excited.”

One of 50 players named to the Preseason Wooden Award Watch List, Ayala enters the 2021 campaign with career averages of 10.6 points per game and 2.25 assists per game. During a standout junior campaign in which Ayala was an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention selection, he averaged 15.1 points per game, good for the team lead.

Often playing second fiddle early on in his college career to the likes of Anthony Cowan Jr., Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith, Ayala is set to command a team of fresh faces, at the helm of the action on the hardwood.

“[Ayala] can really score the ball,” Turgeon said. “He’s gonna be a guy, when the game is on the line for us. I expect him to have a great year.”

Recruited out of Wilmington, Delaware, Ayala came to College Park as a part of a stellar recruiting class that also featured Smith and 2021 NBA Draft Pick Aaron Wiggins, along with three other players. 

Maryland’s 2018 class ranked first in the Big Ten and seventh in the nation at the time. As the 2021 season begins, Ayala is the only one that remains, as Smith and Wiggins entered the NBA and the other members transferred to other programs.

Expected to be a major contributor this season, Ayala is poised to put his name in the conversation of all-time great Maryland guards, and perhaps even one of the best in college basketball.

“I want to do something special here,” Ayala said. “I think we [have] a great team. We [have] a lot of guys that can help out, and just go out there and play the right way.”

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