Well, they did it again.
Facing an amped Nebraska squad with the backing of a raucous crown in Lincoln, Neb., for Senior Night March 8, Maryland once more found a way to win, securing its seventh victory in a row, including three straight away from College Park, Md.
And the Terps (26-5, 14-4 Big Ten) pulled off the 64-61 triumph with an under-the-weather Jake Layman, a center who just returned from a foot issue (Michal Cekovsky), a banged up Evan Smotrycz and several other key cogs nursing nagging injuries.
The reward? Five days of relative rest and a double-bye heading into the upcoming Big Ten tournament, which begins March 11 in Chicago.
“[The extra rest is] big for us,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said during a March 9 teleconference. “To have a Sunday night game on the road and having extra days to get ready, it’s big. We’re a little banged up, a little sick, going through things every team is going through. But we gutted it up and got it done [in Nebraska]… It wasn’t easy playing at Nebraska, but the guys got it done. And now we’ve got a chance to get healthy going into the postseason. It’s good for us.”
Speaking of getting healthy, Terps senior wing Dez Wells is seemingly fully recovered from a broken wrist that affected his game even after he returned from a month-long absence. During Maryland’s seven-game winning streak, Wells has looked like a pro, carrying UMD at times while averaging a Big Ten-high 18 points per game.
During the Nebraska bout, Wells dropped in 18 and grabbed 12 rebounds, his play in the second half, in particular, lifting the Terps from an eight-point deficit. Wells’ ice-in-the veins jumper with a hand in his face as regulation came to a close served as a microcosm of the senior’s night (and, really, the last month): cool, collected, fearless and downright deadly.
“Dez has had an unbelievable year. He’s put us on his back basically. He’s gotten help from Melo [Trimble], Jake Layman, but down 8 [against Nebraska], Dez gets the dunk and kind of changes the game,” Turgeon said. “He’s really carried us on this seven-game winnings streak. “
Turgeon went on to reflect a bit on Wells’ Terps career. He discussed the former Xavier star’s transfer to College Park, the flack Wells took over the alleged rape that led to his dismissal from the Musketeers, and how Wells has ingratiated himself at UMD.
“He’s a loyal dude. I stood by him when everything happened when he transferred here, and he’s been equally as loyal to me and believed in me since Day One,” Turgeon said. “That’s what teams do. You develop relationships with your players and you back each other. When it hit rock bottom with the outside world looking in [last offseason], Dez was there to defend me and the program.
“I’m happy for him. He’s been a great representative of our program and the university. And I really hope great things continue happen for him the rest of the season and in the future.”
Up to 15.3 points (ninth in the Big Ten), 2.8 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game, Wells has become one of the most productive all-around players in the conference. He, along with freshman point guard Melo Trimble and possibly junior forward Jake Layman, could earn some Big Ten accolades in the coming days.
Trimble, for his part, ranks fifth in scoring (16.1 points per game), 12th in assists (3.1) and first in free throw shooting (87.6 percent). Against Nebraska, he canned nine of 10 from the line to help UMD eke out the victory.
Layman has faded somewhat down the stretch, but he too had a solid year, averaging 13.1 points and a team-high 5.9 rebounds per game.
“I’m hoping a couple of my players get the awards they deserve, because they’ve just been tremendous all year. … I’m hoping good things happen for them,” Turgeon said.
“And with this team, I’m not worried about how awards might affect our team, because we’re truly going to be happy for each player that wins an award. That’s how this team is put together and their personalities. Hopefully we’ll be able to celebrate it. And we’ll have time; we don’t play again until Friday [March 13].”
His players aren’t the only ones who could bring home Big Ten honors. Turgeon is one of the leading candidates for conference Coach of the Year after guiding a team picked to end up 10th to a second-place finish.
“I haven’t thought about it much,” Turgeon said of his Coach of the Year possibilities. “It would mean a lot because there’s a lot of great coaches, and it would mean a lot because of where we started. If you’re lucky enough to win an award like that, you can’t do it without great players that [buy] in. I don’t know what lies ahead, but whether you win or not, it’s been a fun year and a great team to coach. That’s really what it’s about.”
The fun will continue March 13 at 6:30 p.m. in the United Center -- and it’s safe to say it won’t be a cakewalk when the Terps resume play this postseason.
Whether they’re taking on seventh-seeded Indiana (19-12, 9-9 Big Ten), which split the season-series with UMD, or No. 10 Northwestern (15-16, 6-12), which came within a Dez Wells putback of upsetting the Terps in College Park Jan. 25, Maryland is going to have its hands full.
The Hoosiers face the Wildcats March 12 at 6:30 p.m. for the right to play UMD the next night.
True, there’s plenty of doom and gloom in Bloomington, Ind., these days what with the Hoosiers dropping three straight games to close out the regular season, putting them firmly on the NCAA tournament bubble. Badly needing a win to improve its resume and gain momentum heading into Chicago, IU suffered a demoralizing 74-72 loss to Michigan State in Assembly Hall.
But this wounded dog still has plenty of bite to it, posing plenty of problems with its potent offense. IU ranks first in the Big Ten at 78 points per game, first in 3-point percentage (41 percent) and third in overall field-goal percentage (47 percent).
Junior point guard Yogi Ferrell is sixth in the conference at 16 points per game and fourth with five assists per, while backcourt mate James Blackmon sits eighth at 15.8 points per. Forward Troy Williams averages double figures too, dropping in 13.2 a night, to go along with 7.1 rebounds per game (fourth in the Big Ten).
The Hoosiers also have six players connecting on 40 percent of their 3s, including sixth man Nick Zeisloft (46 percent, second in Big Ten), guard Robert Johnson (40 percent), role player Collin Hartman (48 percent), Williams (40 percent) and Ferrell (42 percent).
Indiana’s main problem, though, has been defense. The Hoosiers are the only Big Ten team that’s surrendering more than 70 points per game (71.8), while foes typically hit more than 45 percent of their field goals against IU’s porous post defense.
The Terps certainly took advantage of Indiana’s defensive struggles, shooting a combined 50 percent during the two regular season bouts. But IU’s offense more than made up for its lackluster “D” Jan. 22.
During the initial Terps-Hoosiers showdown in Bloomington, IU caught fire from deep, thrashing UMD 89-70. Ferrell had 24 points (7-of-8 from range) and five assists, Blackmon dropped in 22, Hartman recorded 15, and Williams had 16 and seven rebounds.
The Terps returned the favor a couple weeks later in College Park, a 68-66 Maryland win. Ferrell, though, once again put on an aerial show, connecting on 6-of-9 triples to score a game-high 23 points, while Williams poured in 17.
“I think [Ferrell] continues to get better and better and he’s his own worst critic at times,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said March 9. “At the same time he’s got an edge and a level of toughness that’s outstanding. We need him to play with that edge on defense as well as offense. … He improves all the time. He improves every year, throughout the year. I wouldn’t trade him for anybody; he’s done a fantastic job.”
Northwestern, meanwhile, may be the lower seed, but the Wildcats just defeated Indiana Feb. 25, 72-65, in Evanston, Ill. Moreover, the United Center is basically in Northwestern’s backyard, a familiar arena that should have its share of purple-and-white supporters.
The Wildcats just lost by 17 in Iowa City, Iowa., but they have won their last four home games, knocking off the likes of Michigan, Indiana, Penn State and Iowa.
“I think it’s a great thing for our program to be getting a bye. I don’t know too many times in program history Northwestern hasn’t played on the first day [of the Big Ten tournament]. To me that’s a step forward for our program,” Wildcats coach Chris Collins said. “It’s a great testament to my guys to being the last place team four weeks ago to being top 10 in the league. I’m really proud of our guys finding ways to win.
“We feel really good about how we played the last month of the season. I think our guys are excited …. about getting that extra day and having a chance to play on Thursday. It’s a positive step with where we want the program to go. Obviously 10th isn’t our end all, but it’s a step forward from where we were last year.”
Northwestern does rank in the bottom half of the Big Ten in most major statistical categories, though, including a glaring 14th in turnover margin (minus 1.65). They aren’t an especially efficient offensive team, nor do they strike fear defensively, but they’re a tough out if taken lightly.
Guard Tre Demps leads the team at 12.8 points per, 7-foot center Alex Olah averages 11.8 points and seven rebounds, while point guard Bryant McIntosh is scoring 11.4 and dropping 4.7 assists a night.
“We have to do a great job on Tre Demps, because he took the game over in the second half [when Northwestern beat IU]... [The Wildcats are] playing with a lot of confidence,” Crean said. “The Michigan game was a big win certainly, and the zone [defense] is good and keeps their players on the floor and out of foul trouble. We can attack the zone better, and we have to do a better job all around [against Northwestern].”
McIntosh, for his part, did his best Yogi Ferrell impression Jan. 25 in College Park, dropping 21 points in a showdown against Melo Trimble. The Wildcats ended up shooting 54 percent from the floor and 40 percent from range that night, while they held a 32-27 rebounding advantage as well.
If not for Trimble’s 27 points, Wells’ 17, and 18 Terps free throws, Northwestern would have handed UMD a home loss.
But, just as the Terps have done for all but one small stretch this season, they figured out a way to win. And now, after surviving Nebraska March 8, they enter the Big Ten tournament with a program-record 26 victories and a shot to earn a No. 2 seed in the upcoming NCAA tourney.
“I try not to rank [teams I’ve coached]. I’ve had a lot of good teams, a lot of fun teams, a lot of great teams to coach,” Turgeon said. “Considering what we’ve gone through here, this has been pretty satisfying. We’ve got a great group that’s bought in since Day One when we started working with them in June. They’ve just been unbelievably great buying into what we’re trying to teach, and we’ve had great leadership.
“It’s been fun. It’s been a fun regular season, and our guys were able to accomplish a goal, and I guess make history winning 26 regular season games. … I’m proud of this group, happy for them and we’re looking forward to the postseason.”
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