COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- It's been a staple of coach speak ever since organized sports began: Winning away from the confines and comforts of home ain't easy. And while that may seem like a convenient excuse, for the most part, it holds true. Problem is, in the world of high-major college basketball at least, you have to grab a few road victories in order to qualify for the one postseason tournament that truly matters.
"The goal is to get into the NCAA tournament – that's why we play," said Maryland junior wing Nick Faust, who has adapted well to his sixth-man role and is averaging 13.6 points over his last six games. "And to do that you have to get road wins."
"We have to establish ourselves as a road team to get into the [NCAA] tournament," agreed sophomore center Charles Mitchell, who is coming off a 10-point, seven-rebound effort in a 74-66 home victory against Notre Dame. "We have to continue to win, and it always looks good on your resume when you go into somebody else's house and win. That's what helps you get into the tournament."
Needless to say, there's a sense of urgency for the Terps (11-7, 3-2 ACC) as they travel down to Raleigh, N.C., Jan. 20 to take on a struggling N.C. State (11-7, 1-4 ACC) team that has lost three straight games and was just walloped by Duke. The Wolfpack are just 8-4 at home this season, and during their last game at PNC Arena they fell to Virginia, 76-45, so it's a squad Maryland has a chance to knock off.
"They're going to be hungry, but we have to be way more hungry than them," Mitchell said. "We have to have the want-to and the will to win. Winning on the road, you have to make plays; have less mental mistakes; you have to be more poised; and execute better."
OK, so Mitchell and Co. know what it takes. But so far Maryland has been unable to muster much of anything away from Comcast Center, going 1-3 this season after finishing 3-7 in 2012-13. The Terps did knock off Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Mass., 88-80, but they lost big against Ohio State, Pittsburgh and Florida State. UMD is averaging just 67 points on the road (not including neutral site games) and is surrendering an unsightly 80, the low-point being a listless 85-61 drubbing in Tallahassee, Fla., Jan. 12.
"It's so hard to win in the league if you don't have elite talent," Terps head coach Mark Turgeon said. "That said, it comes time where you have to figure out how to win games on the road. We have to figure out how to play better [on the road]. That's the next step for us … It's time."
True, the Terps may not have the prime-time talent to consistently snag road victories, but few in the conference do win away from home. Only four ACC teams have over .500 road records this season, and one of them, Virginia Tech, is just 1-0. Meanwhile, eight conference squads are below .500 on the road.
"It's the crowd," said sophomore point guard Seth Allen, who earned his first start against Notre Dame and poured in 14 points to go along with five rebounds and four assists. "You really have to stay poised and can't make mental mistakes. You have to stick together because it's just your five guys versus the other team and the crowd. And you're not going to get the calls you would at home either, so you really have to play well in all aspects to do well on the road."
Fortunately for the Terps, they're taking on a Wolfpack squad that has proven to be very average this season. Although N.C. State shoots 46.5 percent from the field (fifth in the ACC), the Pack averages just 72 points per game (ninth), hit just 29 percent of their 3-point attempts (last), surrender 77 points per (bottom third) and are near the bottom in rebounds as well. Moreover, N.C. State has lost three ACC games by double digits, although it did fall to Wake Forest by just one point and knocked off Notre Dame on the road.
"They're talented. They're young, but they're talented," Turgeon said. "They had a tough last couple games, but [head coach] Mark [Gottfried] has done a tremendous job with them. They're big, strong, have good players. It's going to be a tough game."
The toughest of the bunch is sophomore forward T.J. Warren, who is averaging 22 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game, all team highs. Turgeon said Faust and junior wing Dez Wells will be the primary defenders on Warren, but it's going to take the whole UMD squad to neutralize him.
"We'll probably double the post on him whenever he catches it," said Faust, who Turgeon lauded for his defensive effort against Notre Dame. "He's great with his back to the basket and in the paint. He doesn't shoot really, really well, but he's great in the paint."
Turgeon basically concurred with that scouting report, praising Warren's post-up game and ability to make tough shots down low.
"He's probably going to get his [points], but our whole thing with Warren is if he gets 20, 22 points, he does it on 19, 20 shots," Turgeon said. "If he gets 22 on eight shots, it's not going to be good for us. We have to make him earn it."
Warren isn't the Wolfpack's only threat, however. Senior center Jordan Vandenberg is a 7-foot-1 rim protector who is averaging 2.1 blocks per game, while senior two-guard Desmond Lee is putting up 9.9 points per night. Point guard Anthony Barber is the team's second leading scorer at 11.3 per, and also dishes out a team-high 4.2 assists per game.
"[State] has a point guard [Barber] who gets up and down the floor well," Allen said. "You have to contain him in transition, and you really have to guard their sets too. But they're really good getting out in transition, so we have to be good in our transition defense."
Defense, according to Turgeon, is the key to emerging victorious. He pointed to the start of the second half against Notre Dame, when UMD held the Irish scoreless for six-and-a-half minutes, as the main reason the Terps were able to stage a comeback. It's no surprise, then, that he's put a major emphasis on "D" during the three practices leading into the N.C. State bout Jan. 20.
"Everything is about effort on defense. You have to want to do it," Mitchell said. "You have to have the will to do it.
"We showed that [against Notre Dame]. There's always a turning point [in a season]. Everybody looks back on that one game and says, ‘That's where it changed.' So for us, we were down at halftime [against UND] and we didn't put our heads down. We came out with energy, attacked, played great defense and were competitive. We wanted it more."
That second half has naturally given Maryland confidence heading forward. But, as Turgeon pointed to heading into Pittsburgh and then Florida State, "it's a different animal on the road."
Are the Terps finally ready to take that animal on after back-to-back road drubbings?
"It's about time we showed we can be a good road team and go into somebody else's house and win," Mitchell said. "It's that mental thing where we expect to win at home, and now we have to expect to win on the road."
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