It's been an agonizing stretch for head coach Mark Turgeon and his Maryland Terps (15-14, 7-9 ACC), which, after a momentum-building victory against Florida State Feb. 8, have dropped four of their last five games.
With an eight-point defeat at then-No. 17 Virginia; a last-second heartbreaker at then-No. 8 Duke; an agonizing loss at home versus No. 4 Syracuse; and most recently a head-scratching double-overtime defeat at unranked Clemson, Maryland has gone from postseason hopefuls to clawing for an NIT berth. The Terps will need to take care of business against Virginia Tech (9-19, 2-14 ACC) March 4 at 8 p.m. and No. 5 UVA March 9 just to reach .500 in the league -- a possibility most UMD aficionados didn't even consider at the season's outset.
"I think it's a little bit of a hard-luck season for Maryland," said Clemson coach Brad Brownwell the day after his team survived the Terps, 77-73. "I mean, that ball falls in against Duke and things change momentum wise. I think momentum is a powerful thing, and they seem to be having one of those years…
"The margin for error is really small for most of us, and [Maryland is] having one of those seasons where things just haven't gone their way. They've lost some close games, they've played some tough teams in our league in tough environments and played them very well. They could have easily won [March 2], but the ball bounced our way, our guys made a couple plays, and we won in double overtime. The game could have gone either way, and sometimes the years go by where you just don't win many of those close ones."
Opposing coaches, to a man, have lauded Maryland, saying the Terps are thisclose to breaking out. But while close defeat after close defeat may suggest that's the case, fact is UMD is still suffering from many of the same problems that has plagued the squad all season.
Turgeon noted how Maryland has improved defensively, rebounding and even, at times, shooting. But key areas such as court intelligence, ball-handling and focus remain major question marks.
"A lot of things," Turgeon responded March 3 when asked what areas his team needs to pick up. "I guess just playing consistently better from game to game would help us. … But our guys are resilient; we continue to practice hard, we continue to work hard to get better."
One of those inconsistent performers has been sophomore wing Jake Layman, who, after solid outings against Wake Forest and Duke, scored just six points against Syracuse (1-of-6 shooting) and went ice cold (1-of-14) against Clemson. Layman was 1-of-9 from 3-point range in the Tigers' loss, and had more fouls (four) than points (three).
"All the conversations leading up to [the Virginia Tech] game will be about being aggressive against Virginia Tech's zone. Jake's gonna need to play, and play well for us," Turgeon said. "It's not like we told Jake to quit shooting [against Clemson]. We think he can make a big shot, and he's got to think that way. He had a bad day, so hopefully he'll regroup… It was a frustrating day, but you have to move on. You can't think about Clemson. You have to be strong mentally and move forward."
While Layman took a step back, fellow wing Evan Smotrycz actually had one of his better games March 2. Coming off the bench for the first time in conference play, the Michigan transfer had 19 points and nailed 4-of-7 from beyond the arc, including a last-second trey to force double overtime. It was Smotrycz' first outing since late January against Miami (3-of-4 from 3-point range) where he found his stroke from deep.
"His body language was much better… I don't know if it had anything to do with Evan starting or not starting, it was more about his approach and attitude towards the game -- that's why he played well," said Turgeon, who wouldn't commit to Smotrycz being back in the starting lineup against Va Tech. "He stayed positive throughout the game, and that's something we've been working on with him lately. Hopefully he'll keep that up as the season moves on here."
Another positive for Maryland has been the slow but steady improvement of freshman point guard Roddy Peters. While the stats don't necessarily show it, Peters looked calm and comfortable running the show. He seemed to have a better grasp of the offense than starter Seth Allen, who scored 20 points but continues to harbor a "shoot first" mentality.
"Roddy continues to get better. He's been very coachable. He's approaching the game differently; he's thinking like a point guard and not a scorer, and that's important for us," Turgeon said. "He's gotten so much better defensively; he hasn't been a liability out there. We're confident in him out there."
The Terps have a chance to gain some more confidence March 4 at 8 p.m. Barring a psychological meltdown, Maryland should get a reprieve against a Virginia Tech squad they smashed by 20, 80-60, back on Feb. 1 in Blacksburg, Va.
Dez Wells, who came off the bench Feb. 1 after he arrived late to a team breakfast, dropped in 19 points, while Allen had 16 points and seven assists. Nick Faust and Jake Layman tallied 10 each, giving Maryland, which shot 52 percent for the game and 53 percent from 3-point range, four double-figure scorers.
Virginia Tech, meanwhile, made just 37 percent of its field goals, and if not for freshman guard Ben Emelogu's 21 points, would've struggled to put up a 50 spot.
"I watched that tape a couple times now, and we just didn't play well all the way around, offensively or defensively," Tech coach James Johnson said. "Our transition defense was not good, Maryland got out and scored -- they pretty much scored any way they wanted to."
It certainly won't help Va Tech's chances now that Emelogu is shelved with an ankle injury. He is one of three key Hokies who have missed time due to various ailments this season, the others being key senior forward reserve Cadarian Raines (five points, three rebounds per game) and the team's second-leading scorer, guard Adam Smith (11 points per game), who has been out the last 11 contests.
But despite losing the attrition war, the Hokies have actually played relatively well, at least defensively, the last few games. Johnson noted how Tech held Duke to 66 points two contests ago and just barely dropped a bout against red-hot North Carolina, 60-56.
Overall, Tech, which employs a 2-3 zone, is allowing just 62 points per game in ACC play. That's saying something considering the Hokies have just two conference victories, both against Miami.
"I think [Tech's zone] keeps them fresher as the game goes on," Turgeon said. "They've had some injuries, so it helps their depth, keeps them out of foul trouble. And they're confident in it, so it definitely helps their game and their team as their season has gone on … They've been right there against some of the top teams in our league."
But while the Hokies' defense has improved, they haven't been consistent in any one area this season, which has led to their undoing. Johnson said sometimes the Hokies have failed to get a key defensive stop late, sink free throws that would have tied the score in crunch time, or had a sloppy possession that swung the momentum down the stretch.
Mostly, though, Tech has had difficulties scoring without Emelogu and Smith in the lineup. The Hokies are 13th in the ACC at 64.3 points per game, last in field-goal percentage (41.0) and 12th in free-throw percentage (65.2). And it certainly doesn't help matters that their assist-to-turnover ratio is rock bottom.
Forward Jarell Eddie (18 points against UNC) leads the way with 13.4 points per game, but without the aforementioned injured players, no one else averages double digits. Point guard Devin Wilson, who Turgeon lauded March 3, puts up 9.5 a night, but his forte is dishing the rock, as he's second in the ACC with 4.8 assists per game.
Forward C.J. Barksdale averages 8.4 points, but he's not the type to take over a game. Big man Joey Van Zegeren, meanwhile, is physically imposing and ranks fifth in the ACC with 1.8 blocks per, to go along with 4.9 rebounds per, but he's not a scorer. And like Van Zegeren, forward Trevor Thompson is more of a defensive presence, grabbing 4.6 rebounds and coming up with a block per game.
"We're a better team right now [than when we played Maryland]," Johnson said. "Our defense has played well the last couple games. … The [players] are encouraged. They're playing with confidence, but you certainly want to win those games [against Duke and Carolina]. They understand they have to do a better job of taking care of the basketball, and we need one more playmaker -- a guy that can step up and score a basket late in the game. ... We just have to get guys to put points on the board…
"But they do have confidence in their zone and how they're playing right now, but obviously the guys want to win and they work hard to win."
Sounds a bit like Turgeon and Maryland, right? Sure, the Terps have had more success than Virginia Tech and the issues aren't entirely the same, but both programs are searching for those intangible qualities all winning programs seem to have: reliable leaders, high basketball IQ and all-around consistency.
It might be too late for either squad to solve those issues this late in 2013-14. But at least Maryland, coming off a draining double-overtime battle with Clemson, is hoping it can summon enough energy, physically and mentally, to knock off another squad that's hit the skids.
"We'll see how tough we are mentally," Turgeon said. "It really comes down to how mentally tough we are to bounce back and be ready to play a Virginia Tech team that's playing much better than when we played them at their place."
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