Maryland is back in the Big Dance for the first time since 2010, but Selection Sunday came with mixed emotions for the Terps. With an outside shot at landing a No. 2 seed should they have won the Big Ten tournament, Maryland figured to at least be a third seed in the NCAA tournament after falling to Michigan State in the semifinals.
Apparently the NCAA selection committee had other ideas, however. Maryland (27-6, 15-4 Big Ten) was tabbed as a No. 4 seed in the Midwest region, its first game coming March 20 against No. 13-seed Valparaiso (28-5, 13-3 Horizon League) in Columbus, Ohio.
“I was just so darn excited to be part of the tournament,” head coach Mark Turgeon said on a conference call March 15. “It’s been three years since I’ve been there…and it’s so important to get to the NCAA tournament. I think we’ve won 85-86 games since I’ve been here, but we haven’t played in an NCAA tournament. It’s huge for all aspects of our program -- recruiting our fanbase, everything. We’ve unbelievably excited and it’s a great accomplishment for us. Hopefully it’s a great start for a lot of years to come.
“But I think we put too much into [Joe] Lunardi and his Bracketology. We found out late last night [March 14] we might be in Columbus as a four seed, so I probably should have said something to the team before it came out. Everyone thought we were going to be a three and was shocked when [the seedings] came out, but our guys are fine. I know some people were shocked, but our guys are fired up and they’re excited to be part of the tournament.”
Turgeon wasn’t perturbed at Maryland’s placement in Columbus, Ohio, either. Many, including the aforementioned Lunardi, projected UMD to wind up in Pittsburgh, which would have been just a four-hour drive from College Park, Md.
But the Terps’ headman still expects quite a pro-Maryland crowd, despite the extra two hours it takes to reach Columbus.
“You know, we had a great showing out in Chicago [for the Big Ten tournament], which was great because we thought a lot of people would be saving their money [for the NCAA tournament],” Turgeon said. “Our fans have been great all year, and I think our fans would follow us to Seattle. So we feel like they’ll be a lot of fans coming to the game in Columbus.”
Should UMD defeat Valpo, it will play the winner of the No. 5 West Virginia/No. 12 Buffalo matchup March 22.
The top overall seed, Kentucky, also resides in the Midwest region, and could very well face the Terps in the Sweet 16 should both teams advance that far.
At first blush, this Midwest region looks to be the most challenging road to the Elite Eight and Final Four in the entire tournament.
“It is what it is. Every year the seeding is the hardest part for the committee to do,” Turgeon said. “And I think a lot of the challenge now has to do with regionalizing it and making it easier for the fans to save money. If you look around, that [regionalizing] played a big part with the committee…
“But, you know … we were picked 10th [in the Big Ten] and it took us a long time to climb up the polls. So it is what it is. The most important thing for us is Valpo. The number in front of your name is just a number. It’s who you’re playing that’s important … We’ll just do the best we can against Valpo, hopefully figure out a way to win and advance.”
Yes, before looking down the road to Kentucky, first the Terps first have to deal with Valparaiso, which Maryland actually faced once before in the 1999 NCAA tournament, an 82-60 UMD victory in the South Region’s opening round.
The school from Valparaiso, Ind., won the Horizon League title and tournament this year and has a decisive signature win against Murray State (winners of 25 straight games), 93-58. The Crusaders also defeated the second-best squad in the Horizon, Green Bay, two times out of three (the lone loss was a one-point affair in Green Bay).
Head coach Bryce Drew’s squad is averaging 69.8 points per game and allowing just 59.3, while holding foes to 42.1 percent shooting (No. 13 nationally) and out-rebounding teams by seven boards a night. The Crusaders shoot well from the floor (46 percent), but they’re particularly deadly from deep, their 38-percent conversion rate ranking 36th nationally. They aren’t nearly as adept from the free-throw line (67.8 percent), and they turn the ball over at a high rate as well ranking 283rd in the country in turnover margin.
Sophomore forward Alec Peters leads the team at 16.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. This 6-foot-9 stretch-forward connects on 46 percent of his 3-point shots and is 86 percent from the line, clearly making him Valpo’s most potent weapon.
Junior guard Darien Walker ranks second at 10.8 points and 4.5 rebounds, and is shooting 37 percent from beyond the arc. Freshman guard Tevonn Walker is picking up 10.2 points a night and split time running the point this year with junior Keith Carter, who isn’t much of a scorer (8.5 a night), but has a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Senior center Vashii Fernandez (6-10) averages 6.9 points and 5.9 rebounds, while freshman forward David Skara (6-8) is picking up 5.5 points per. Fernandez, for his part, is especially adept at blocking shots, averaging almost three a night.
“We’ve playing a good Valpo team. They won 28 games. We don’t know a lot about them right now, but we’ll start looking at them tomorrow [March 16],” Turgeon said. “I watched a little bit of their conference championship game, like 10 minutes of it, and they look really good defensively, and they have a big guy [Alec Peters] that can shoot it.
“But, you know, they’re 28-5, 13-3 in their league. That’s hard to do in any league unless you’re a really good basketball game.”
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