COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Maryland rose as high as No. 2 in the national polls earlier during the season, but there’s a cloud of doom and an aura of gloom that's settled over Terps Nation of late. During the last three weeks of the regular season, when the cream supposedly rises to the top, UMD (24-7, 12-6 Big Ten) has dropped four of its last six heading into the Big Ten tournament. Maryland’s only victories since Feb. 13 have come in home bouts against Michigan and lowly Illinois, the latter leading up to a demoralizing regular-season-ending 80-62 defeat at Indiana.
The Terps as a whole aren’t taking their recent deficiencies lightly, but at least their spirits haven’t been sapped. A relatively close-knit group through thick and thin, the squad exuded a rather lighthearted attitude the day before embarking for Indianapolis, Ind., site of the conference tournament.
While senior guard Rasheed Sulaimon addressed the media March 9, teammates Jake Layman and Melo Trimble snuck up behind him and held up “Happy Birthday Rasheed” signs, strategically placed so the numerous television cameras would capture these eloquent works of art.
“It’s kind of hard when it’s in the midst of all the practices when everyone’s trying to focus, but I’m blessed to see a 22nd year,” Sulaimon finally allowed after a prompt from a reporter. “Everything I’ve been through, especially the last couple years, I’m just happy I lived through it and glad to be where I’m at right now.”
As far as a birthday wish was concerned, though, Sulaimon demurred.
“You know the old adage: You can’t tell your wishes or they won’t come true,” Sulaimon said, laughing. “So I’ll have to keep that to myself.”
Of course, it’s fairly obvious what Sulaimon’s hoping for. In all likelihood, it corroborates with that of Layman, Trimble, head coach Mark Turgeon, the Maryland staff and the rest of Terps’ County.
But for this UMD squad to reach its potential, to meet its preseason expectations, it’s going to have to summon some intestinal fortitude.
We’re not talking talent here -- just guts. In particular, some gumption on defense.
“We know there’s a lot of things we can do better on the defensive end,” Turgeon said. “This week is really a work week as far as us trying to get better, especially on the defensive end. That’s going to be an emphasis for us.”
Maryland still ranks fourth in the Big Ten in scoring defense, the Terps allowing about 66 points per game. They’re also sitting fifth in field-goal percentage “D” at 40.5 percent and fourth in 3-point defense at 32 percent. But considering UMD ranked first or second in each of the above categories for much of 2015-16, well, it’s probably a cause for concern.
The Terps have surrendered 80-plus points in three of the last four games, allowing IU, Michigan and Purdue to shoot an average of around 50 percent from the floor.
“Just overall team defense, working on off-ball ball screens, on-ball ball screens, and just trusting your help. We have to be one cohesive unit,” Sulaimon said. “If one person gets beat to the hole, we have to trust and know the next person is going to be there to help him. Those things will help us with overall team defense.”
Trimble, for his part, said the squad has to do a better job closing out on shooters, rotating, getting back in transition, keeping opponents in front of them, hitting the glass, and “just doing the little things” that lead to lockdown “D.”
So, between Sulaimon and Trimble, that pretty much covers the gauntlet. Which begs the question, Is Maryland doing anything right defensively?
Cynical inquiry or not, Turgeon and the Terps believe the team can revert to early-season form, when they were among the stingiest defensive units in the country.
“I think we’re going to be closer to where we want to be, because losing grabs your attention to details,” Turgeon said. “Maybe when you’re 22-3, you’re talking about [things you need to improve on], but maybe you’re not correcting the things you should. … I think we’re making strides, getting our enthusiasm up and our minds right.
“I think the regular season grind is behind us. I think our guys have moved on; that happened [March 6] when we landed [after losing to Indiana]. Practices have been good, attitudes have been good. I think as the week goes on the enthusiasm will get better and better. The [players] are excited about what lies ahead.”
Layman, oft-criticized for his defense during his four-year career, has actually put the forth the best effort of any Terp down the stretch. He’s hoping his floor-diving, ball-hawking ways will rub off on his teammates heading into the heart of March.
“There’s a sense of urgency now,” Layman said. “This is the last time [in the postseason] for a lot of us. So we have to be dialed in and ready to go.”
Yes, it’s go time for Maryland circa 9 p.m. March 11. The Terps, the No. 3 seed and the beneficiaries of a double-bye, will embark on their postseason journey against the winner of the Wisconsin-Nebraska bout March 10.
More than likely, Maryland will be taking on the sixth-seeded Badgers, which the Terps split the season series with. UMD knocked off Greg Gard’s squad in Madison, Wisc., 63-60, but fell miserably at Xfinity Center, 70-57, the start of the Terps’ recent demise.
Not that Maryland is concentrating too much on the Badgers. The Terps are more concerned with improving their own games and preparing for an extended B1G tourney run.
“It’s great not to think about who you’re going to play,” said Turgeon, who mentioned having a 9 p.m. game followed by a potential bout the next day is a ‘good problem to have.’ “You have an idea who you think it’s going to be, but it’s a chance to really work on us and … having the enthusiasm and belief when practice first started.
“It’s different this time of year, just the fact you don’t play for five days and don’t know your opponent. You can’t go into this tournament without legs. You can’t go three hours every day to prepare for [one game]. You have to get better, but also remember you might have three games this weekend. There’s a lot that goes on.”
For the players’ part, they’re mentally wiping the slate clean. There was no talk of Wisconsin, Michigan State, Indiana or any other future foe March 9.
It’s the ‘ol one-game-at-a-time, win-and-live-another-day mentality.
“We’re starting over,” Trimble said. “It’s the postseason now, the regular season is behind us, and the mindset is just to win. … We’re dialed in. We’re focused. We’re ready. No matter who we play, just get the win.”
Said Sulaimon: “We’re focusing on ourselves, honing in on our strengths and improving our weaknesses. But we’re looking at [the Big Ten tournament] as a mini version of the NCAA tournament. Instead of six games, it’s three games. You lose, you go home. So we’re trying to use the Big Ten tournament as best we can to prepare for the NCAA tournament, but at the same time we’re going to try to win it.”
The good news for the Terps is they won’t have to deal with raucous Midwest crowds any longer, even though the tournament’s being held in the heart of Big Ten country. Turgeon, along with his team, suggested the neutral setting should ultimately aid the Terps.
Moreover, Turgeon mentioned since the Big Ten tournament is run like the NCAA tournament, it should prepare the squad for the Big Dance.
“And the building should be live,” the headman added. “Just being part of these games is what college basketball is all about.”
For the Terps to be part of more than one of these games, though, there must be an attitude change. Last year, the team exceeded expectations by adopting an underdog mentality. This season, it’s a 180.
But maybe, after four losses in six games, and Maryland plummeting down the Bracketology charts, the Terps can summon a little 2015 as Madness begins.
“I think people have lost a lot of respect for us,” Trimble said. “So knowing that gives us a chip on our shoulder, and now we have to come out and prove people wrong.”