COLLEGE PARK. Md. – Seems like old times with the 8th-ranked Terrapins heading back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010.
They acted as though they needed a little refresher course on how to react, though. An online video seemed to show the 27-6 Terrapins tepid at the fourth seed in the Midwest Region. They’re headed to Columbus, Ohio, for a March 20 showdown with No. 13-seed Valparaiso at Nationwide Arena, but had hardly settled in for the CBS selection show March 15 when their name popped up on the television screen.
“(The team) was shocked, it was so early in the show and here comes Maryland,” said Terrapins coach Mark Turgeon, the Big Ten Coach of the Year. “Our guys are fired up. They’re excited about being a part of the tournament.”
Turgeon admitted that the team had maybe focused on Joe Lunardi’s bracket, which had Maryland as a No. 3 seed and a bit closer to home in Pittsburgh.
“We had gotten wind last night that we would probably be in Columbus as a four seed, so I probably should have said something to the team before it came out,” he said. “Maybe I got too caught up in that also.”
Turgeon and the Terrapins are hoping after this breakthrough season in the Big Ten, they’ll get more practice at this selection thing in years to come. For right now, they’re just happy to be headed back to the Big Dance.
“I was just so darn excited to be a part of the tournament, you know it has been three years for me since I’ve been in it, and I just wanted to be a part of it,” added Turgeon about his reaction to the Maryland seed. “The number in front of your name is just a number. It’s who you’re playing that’s really important. We’re playing a good Valpo team but the seeding didn’t really affect our reaction.”
Turgeon said he caught part of Valparaiso’s 54-44 Horizon League championship win over Green Bay. The Crusaders went 28-5, and have a proud basketball tradition, perhaps highlighted by now-coach Bryce Drew, who hit a buzzer-beater shot in the 1998 NCAA Tournament first round to knock off Ole Miss. Drew took over from his father, Homer, in 2011, and has continued the success.
“I watched like 10 minutes of that game (against Green Bay),” said Turgeon. “They looked really good defensively. They have a big guy that can shoot it. They’re 28-5, 13-3 in their league. That’s hard to do in any league so obviously they’re a heck of a basketball team.”
Drew was the Horizon Coach of the Year and 6-9 sophomore Alec Peters was a first team honoree with 16.7 point and 6.8 rebound average per game. He’s likely the big man that caught Turgeon’s eye on TV.
Center Vashil Fernandez was the league’s Defensive Player of the year, and at 6-10, he’s a load. Also 6-7 sophomore Jubril Adekoya won the Horizon’s Sixth Man award. The Crusaders are perhaps a year ahead of schedule with just one senior and five underclassmen in a rotation that has nine players averaging 10-plus minutes.
The Crusaders also do one thing really, really well that has been an issue for the Terrapins. Valpo is 11th in the nation in rebounding margin at plus-7.2 per game, and has out-boarded 13 opponents by double figures. The Terrapins were out-rebounded in Big Ten games 34.4 to 34.1, and it has been a Turgeon concern all year.
Maryland is 1-0 all-time against Valparaiso, meeting them 82-60 in the NCAA Tournament in 1999, in Orlando, Fla. Maryland was in the midst of a magical stretch then that included 19 postseason appearances in 22 years. The Terrapins reached 11 straight NCAA Tournaments and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen seven times, including two Final Four appearances and the 2002 national championship.
The Big Ten’s strength – tying the ACC with seven teams invited this year – could help Turgeon start another such string, and he wasn’t surprised the Terrapins’ new league fared so well on Selection Sunday.
“It was a great league and the reason we were able to (send seven teams) was we all played pretty good nonconference schedules,” he said. “We didn’t really have a bad team in the league, everybody was pretty solid. Some of our lower-end teams had pretty good nonconference seasons so it helped our RPIs.”
Turgeon wasn’t put off by Columbus vs. Pittsburgh either as the site of the Terps’ return to the tournament. “I haven’t done the mileage,” he said “I think it’s like four hours to Pittsburgh and six to Columbus so it’s just a couple of extra hours for our fans to drive. We had a great showing in Chicago (at Big Ten Tournament). We had 3-or-4,000 people in Chicago, and I know some people were saving their money for this.”
Maryland fans have had a lot to celebrate this year – a school record 26 regular season wins, First Team All-Big Ten honors for senior Dez Wells and freshman Melo Trimble, third-team honors for junior Jake Layman and Turgeon’s trophy for Coach of the Year. Picked 10th in the preseason media poll for the league, Maryland finished a strong second, racking up a 14-4 Big Ten record, and closing strong with eight straight victories before surging Michigan State overcame a 15-point deficit to earn a hard-fought 62-58 win in the tournament semifinals.
That was Maryland’s first loss of the year in a game decided by six points or less, against an incredible 11 straight wins in such games, including the 64-61 quarterfinal victory over Indiana in the Terps’ first Big Ten Tournament game and the raucous 59-53 upset of No. 4 Wisconsin in late February.
“My guys, all year, we were picked 10th (and) it took us a long time to climb up into the polls,” said Turgeon of any controversy over the 8th-ranked Terrapins landing only a fourth seed and technically the No. 16 spot in the tournament since overall No. 1 Kentucky likely awaits in the Sweet Sixteen.
“I think seeding is the hardest part for the (selection) committee to do,” said Turgeon. “And a lot of that is to do with regionalizing the tournament as much as they can to save money and make it easier on the fans (to travel).”
An intriguing Border Rival could show up on Maryland’s bracket in the second round, too, if Maryland wins and West Virginia beats Buffalo. Should Buffalo win, it’ll be another chance to boo Bobby Hurley, who now coaches the Bulls.
Either way, the Terrapins are anxious to shrug off that loss to Michigan State, a team they beat twice during the regular season, and start their odyssey in the NCAA Tournament. They fit the profile of a team that might succeed in this setting.
The backcourt of Wells and Trimble has been beyond clutch most of the season. Down the stretch as Maryland won it’s final seven regular season games, Wells averaged 19.1 points and Trimble chipped in 18.4. Trimble entered the postseason with 195 made free throws, the fourth most in the country, not always the domain of a point guard.
On the season, the big three are Trimble (16.3 points per game), Wells (15.4) and Layman (12.8). The angular Layman, a guard trapped in a 6-8 body, also leads the team with 5.9 rebounds, a chore the Terrapins must succeed at by committee. Layman got only three shots in 35 minutes in the Big Ten semifinal. He had five assists and three rebounds and he’s going to have to chip in a lot more for Maryland to move forward in March.
Center Damonte Dodd, who has come on recently, had six points and three rebounds but fouled out of the semifinal loss in just 19 minutes. The committee of he and freshman Michal Cekovsky, undersized Jon Graham and inside/outside Evan Smotrycz will be under a microscope now under the bright lights of the tournament. Smotrycz, who has battled injuries and inconsistency all year, has one last chance to make a big mark at Maryland.
Like Layman, he can be a tough matchup for opponents offensively but he has to step up his physicality on defense when called upon in Maryland’s smaller lineup. Wells is likely to be another key on the glass.
Some are targeting the Terps for a run to the Sweet Sixteen and that dream matchup with No. 1 Kentucky. Right now, it’s just important Maryland is back in the dance. Let Turgeon explain:
“It’s so important. Unfortunately everything in our business is about this NCAA Tournament. I think we’ve won (86) games in my four years here but we haven’t played in this tournament. Being a part of the tournament is huge. It’s huge for all aspects of our program – recruiting, fan-base, everything. It’s really big. We’re unbelievably excited. Not a whole lot of people had us playing in this tournament before the season started so to be a part of it is a great accomplishment for us and hopefully a great start for a lot of years to come.”
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