It was an oft-repeated mantra that road wins were hard to come by in the ACC, regardless of opponent.
Now, the newly-minted Big Ten Terps (14-1, 2-0 Big Ten) are about to find out if this conference bears the same difficulties.
No. 11 Maryland already has one significant league victory away from the Xfinity Center, having knocked off Michigan State Dec. 30 in double overtime, but this week presents a rather unique challenge: The Terps will play two straight road foes, and be away from College Park, Md., for the next five days.
After trekking to Champaign, Ill., for a 9 p.m. Jan. 7 bout against the Illini, Maryland will remain in Illinois until heading to West Lafayette, Ind., for their Jan. 10 2:30 p.m. at Purdue. The only other time Maryland has back-to-back Big Ten road affairs is March 3 at Rutgers and March 8 at Nebraska -- and even then the squad will return home from Piscataway, N.J., before heading to Lincoln, Neb.
“You’re away from home for a long time. We’re staying on the road, it saves us money to do that,” Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon said in a teleconference Jan. 6. “That’s probably the hardest part. Road games are tough. All we’re talking about is the first one, Illinois, preparing for them, and doing the best we can in that game, and then figure out how to do the second game. It’s unique, it’s different. But it is what it is, and we just have to make the best of it.”
The Illini can attest to that, and they didn’t have to travel nearly as far as Maryland for their back-to-back road Big Ten games.
Illinois (10-5, 0-2 Big Ten) is off to an inauspicious start in the league, falling at Michigan in overtime and at Ohio State before trudging back to the State Farm Center (it’s Jake… from State Farm) for their B1G opener Jan. 7.
"I thought during the first two games of Big Ten play we played really, really well for stretches or we've been awful," Illinois coach John Groce said. "You can't be that inconsistent in this league, or that's going to be a recipe that's not going to work."
Illinois hasn’t lost its first three conference bouts in seven years, and the last two times it faced Maryland (2010 and 2011), it knocked the Terps off. That said, Illinois hasn’t defeated a top 25 team at home in its last four attempts.
But regardless of history, fact is, in the here and now, the Illini are hurting – literally. Elite 6-foot-4, 230-pound wing Rayvonte Rice, who was averaging a team-high 17.2 points and 6.9 rebounds per game, while shooting 48-percent from three-point range, broke his hand in practice and will be out three to six weeks.
“Ray’s a monster on offense, Ray’s a monster on defense, Ray’s a monster rebounding,” Groce told the Chicago Sun-Times. “He’s one of the best players in the country… You don’t like to be dealt those cards, but sometimes we get dealt cards in life.”
Rice’s absence would seem to benefit Maryland, although Turgeon took an opposite tact during his Jan. 6 teleconference. The Terps’ headman said his team had prepared specifically for Rice, and now they’ll have to backtrack and discuss the Illini’s other options.
Guard Malcolm Hill is second on the team at 13.1 points and 5.6 rebounds per game, while fellow backcourt mate Kendrick Nunn is third at 7.9 points per. Center Nnana Egwu averages 7.7 points and 5.1 rebounds, while point guard Ahmad Starks is scoring 7.3 points per and dropping about three dimes a night.
“Illinois has other good players [besides Rice],” Turgeon said. “It gives other guys an opportunity to step up.”
Even if their offensive numbers aren’t gaudy, the Illini can pose problems defensively. They’re an active, aggressive bunch that’s holding teams to 40 percent shooting, 31.7 percent from deep and 64.1 points per game.
“They’re primarily a man-to-man team. They’ll play a 2-3 zone a little bit… a 2-2-1 press. But I think it will be similar to what we’ve seen the first two games in the league, which is good,” Turgeon said.
Turgeon, for his part, has never coached a game in Champaign, just as he’d never coached in East Lansing, Mich., against Michigan State. He said these Big Ten road games are “all new territory for us,” and this inaugural league campaign could very well feel like 27 non-conference games to some.
“We’re just going to soak it all in,” Turgeon said. “We don’t have a positive or a negative history. I don’t know if there’s an advantage or disadvantage… We’re just approaching it like it’s a game.”
The Terps as a whole have adopted that even-keeled approach, in regards to history; particular opponents; playing patterns; and, most evidently, national hoopla.
After moving up to No. 11 in the AP poll, Maryland has reached its highest ranking in a decade and is off to its best start since 1996-97. But, to a man, the players and Turgeon insist it means very little. In fact, the headman has commented rather tersely whenever polls and records are mentioned.
“I mean, [the 14-1 start is] exciting,” point guard Melo Trimble said after the Minnesota game Jan. 3. “But we’re not going to let it get into our heads and relax. Now teams are going to start to come at us harder.
“I don’t know too much about the mid-90s and stuff like that. I’m just playing basketball and just having fun out there. My teammates, we have confidence, and that’s making everything work.”
Trimble’s confidence certainly hasn’t waned, even in the wake of his field-goal shooting woes. In two Big Ten games, the freshman is a combined 2-of-16 from three-point range and 7-of-28 (25 percent) from the field. But he’s made up for it by orchestrating ball movement, running the break, drawing fouls, connecting on free throws and playing lockdown defense.
“What he’s going through right now I’m not concerned about it. He’s going to continue to make plays,” Turgeon said. “I’d like to get his minutes down if I could. I think that would help. We’ve got his practice minutes down, trying to keep him fresh between games. He’s a good shooter, and hopefully we’ll get out of it on this road trip and shoot the ball better.”
Said Trimble: “I just listen to what my coach says. Whenever he tells me shots are going to drop, I believe in him. I’m going to just keep shooting.”
Same goes for the other two freshman sharpshooters. Both Jared Nickens and Dion Wiley have cooled off since conference play began, the former scoring just three points the last two games, while the latter has only six (although Wiley hit two threes against Minnesota).
“It’s how [Nickens and Wiley] approach it, which is important. Both guys got workouts in this weekend on [Jan. 4], and they practiced pretty good [Jan. 6],” Turgeon said. “They know they’re important to our team. They know every game is different. They’re approaching it like they’re a piece of the puzzle, and when the time comes they’ll take care of…and do what they have to do to help us win. So I think their attitudes are great and they should be. We’re playing well, and they’ve been a big part of it.”
Turgeon defended Trimble, Nickens and Wiley, but he wasn’t about to stick up for his team’s turnover issues. The Terps have coughed the ball up 195 times this year (40 times in Big Ten play), compared to 176 for their opponents (25 in Big Ten play).
Some of that, Turgeon surmised, has to do with the team re-acclimating itself to both Dez Wells and Evan Smotrycz, who each missed extensive time with injuries.
“We’re not in sync yet with those two [Wells and Smotrycz]. They’re just getting used to playing with different bodies out there,” he said. “A lot of it has just been carelessness with the ball and the shot selection has been a little bit not what it needs to be. Hopefully those two things improve, and if that’s the case, our offense should improve too.
“As the season goes on, hopefully we can better defensively too. We’re not where we can be defensively also.”
The latter comment may be true to an extent, but it’s hard to argue with the results. Maryland is holding teams to 61 points per game, 37 percent shooting, 28 percent three-point shooting and has a plus-six rebounding margin.
“We’re learning that we’re a defensive-based team,” sophomore big man Damonte Dodd said. “If we play defense, we’re talented enough on the offensive end that not too many teams can hang with us.”
Dodd, along with Michal Cekovsky, Dez Wells and Jake Layman, have made significant contributions to the team’s block totals this season. The Terps rank fifth in the Big Ten with 71 rejections, while Dodd and Cekovsky have developed into solid rim-protectors.
“[Dodd and Cekovsky’s} length have helped us. Obviously they’ve blocked a few shots. Dez has blocked a few, Jake’s blocked a few,” Turgeon said. “I just think length around the rim really helps you, a lot. And I think that’s really the big difference in our defense. We’re a little deeper. We’re a little better in our defensive rim protection because of Damonte, because of Ceko.”
They’re going to need their rim protectors, as well as their shooters; slashers; rebounders; and defenders, as the Terps head into the heart of the Big Ten.
The Terps realize the more success they have, the harder it will be to maintain.
"We have a lot of momentum so far,” Wells said, “but we have to continue to win and continue to execute and defend the way we know how we can.”
UMD Set For Back-to-Back Road Tests
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