Maryland’s men’s basketball did not have the start it anticipated or the season it had hoped for. The disheartening losses and occasional injuries came with deteriorating morale and vanishing postseason opportunity, but there was a collective sense of pride that held considerable weight for the Terps. A sense of spirit that lifted them in unlikely circumstances.
For the seniors, Eric Ayala, Fatts Russell, Xavier Green and Simon Wright, maintaining that character, against Minnesota and for the games that remain, matters. Not only because it will likely mark the end of their collegiate careers, but because it’s a conclusion that they can control — just as their attitude.
“I think the upperclassmen have bought into the power of urgency,” interim head coach Danny Manning said. “Knowing that it’s coming to an end, you have a little bit more appreciation for your journey.”
For the regular season, what’s ahead isn’t nearly as daunting as what Maryland has already seen — not as high powered as No. 22 Ohio State or then-No.3 Purdue. Two teams, like Maryland, looking to make a last regular season splash, await — Minnesota and Michigan State.
The Gophers come first. And, just as the Terps, they sit just a game behind .500 (13-14). Avoiding a spoiled senior night hinges on Maryland’s ability to preserve the energy that allows them to string together wins and spark upsets.
Starting in the backcourt, the fulcrum of practically everything good offensively for Maryland, the Terps’ play and energy is crucial. The form that Russell enjoyed in the month of February, has to carry over in March — along with the form that Ayala has recaptured.
Ayala scored his first 20-point game in Maryland’s most recent win since suffering a hand injury that set him back. He, like his good friend and point guard, are looking to end their careers at Maryland on a high note, with the prolific numbers that have earned them some big-time wins.
For Ayala, Wednesday’s game will also be a chance for him to celebrate in a way he hasn’t before.
“I never really had like a senior night or nothing like that in [high school],” Ayala said. “I never really had like a big graduation or any ceremony type thing … so it’s definitely special for me. It’s kind of like one of the first ceremonial things I’ve ever had. So I’m excited.”
Additionally, Russell will have the chance to conclude his college career with his beloved teammates, who also happen to be his close friends.
“Donta [Scott], he’s like my brother. I’ve been with him for — it feels like — all my life and I knew Hakim [Hart] growing up and Eric [Ayala],” Russell said. “So just that whole family environment … we’re like brothers, you know, we enjoy being around each other. We have fun. It really feels like home. It’s gonna be hard leaving here.”
The duo of Ayala and Russell has combined for over 40 points on three occasions already, and almost every upset or narrowly failed upset bid has been a product of the play of one or both of the guards. Just ask, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State or Purdue — all of which were highly ranked when they faced the Terps.
The defense should sustain the verve it’s boasted at its peaks, too. It’s led by Hakim Hart who’s pick-pocketing ability has emerged as an all-league threat (fourth best steal average in the Big Ten), and Green, who takes on more bulkier defensive assignments willfully, occasionally crossing his forearms between plays to signify his lockdown defensive prowess.
Green will have a chance to gesture his now popular ‘X’ a few more times as he plays his final home game defending a lengthy Minnesota team, led by three-level scoring forwards Jamison Battle and Eric Curry.
Much like it did against the Buckeyes, Maryland will need to find ways to finish defensive plays to their entirety; clogging lanes, communicating, and grabbing rebounds.
At the very least, if it all ends sour, the unexpected turbulence of the Terps’ 2021-22 campaign has developed a strong bond that many of them will remember. But, ultimately, the approach the Terps take is vital. Because, after all, their attitude is a foundational piece of their success.
“I think that going through what we went through together as a group … you don’t really have a choice but to show up every day,” Wright said. “Showing up every day, getting through it, just laughing through all the hard times has really brought us close and I’ll remember the guys on the team and our relationship forever. I’ll cherish it.”
“Putting on this Maryland uniform is definitely a privilege,” Russell said.