Confetti, music, nets being cut down, and hugs all around.
That was the scene when Maryland Terrapins celebrated a share of the Big Ten regular-season title for their most successful men’s basketball season since joining the league in 2014.
Without even knowing, that was also the end. Four days later - minutes before a practice - the Terps learned the Big Ten Tournament had been canceled. Four hours after that, the NCAA Tournament followed, too.
It was a devastating blow to a team that had Final Four hopes. Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon still has a hard time accepting the reality.
“It happened so quick,” Turgeon said. “We hadn’t even left for the Big Ten Tournament yet.”
Even now, the raw emotions are still being processed. Senior point guard Anthony Cowan never got his final shot at an NCAA Tournament. Sophomore Jalen Smith didn’t get to avenge the second-round loss to LSU his freshman year and knew he was likely turning pro and headed to the NBA Draft.
“We’re disappointed the way the season ended,” Turgeon said. “Obviously everybody made the right decision to shut down basketball - and really shut down the world right now. But it’s still disappointing because we had a good team. We enjoyed coaching that team. We had a great group of players.”
The Terrapins finished ranked No. 12 in the final Associated Press top-25 poll and were almost certainly going to be a No. 3 or No. 4 seed in the tournament on Selection Sunday. It was arguably the best team Turgeon has coached in his nine seasons with the program.
Telling his players that there was no more basketball was one of the most difficult conversations of Turgeon’s coaching career. But going out as winners offered some small sense of comfort. The end was abrupt, but it had been joyous, too.
“We had an hour-long meeting. It was a terrific meeting,” Turgeon said. “We cried, we laughed, talked about the good times, all the things we went through. Almost everybody in the room spoke. It was a great way to kind of give us closure on the season.”
The team has not seen each other since, asked to stay home and stay safe during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.
“That’s unusual when you’re a coach,” Turgeon said. “It’s a lot of phone calls to them now. We’re used to being around each other all the time. We really miss each other. It’s been tough.”
Who knows how they would have fared in the Big Dance, but playing the “What if?” game does no good, either. Instead, Turgeon chooses to think about the good memories the 2019-20 Terps created. He’s also using his free time to learn new technologies.
“Zoom is new to me, and I’m not great at this technology stuff,” Turgeon joked. “So, I’m putting my wife to work quite a bit.”
We are all trying to learn this new virtual world. It’s far from perfect. The video in this interview continued to freeze the entire way through. It’s frustrating, but it’s also our new normal – and, for coaches, the new classroom.
“I have certain coaches that talk to the players every day because they’re in charge of their academics,” Turgeon said. “This online learning is something that’s unique and new to our players.”
But Turgeon isn’t worried about his players picking things up. They are young and adapting to a new world of school work, workouts and group chats is just fine with them for now. They will bounce back. They are home safe with their families and loved ones.
There will be basketball again at the Xfinity Center. And when the next Maryland basketball game tips, Turgeon knows Terrapins fans will be right there with them. Maryland finished in the top-10 nationally in attendance last season.
“Our fans stepped up and they fell in love with this team,” Turgeon said. “They liked how this team played hard and played together and stuck together. And you could tell our team liked each other and our fans liked them because of it.”
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