COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Maryland came up early on Selection Sunday, in the first grouping of teams called out on CBS’ new expanded show March 13.
Senior Jake Layman recalled it was the second year in a row that he Terrapins were fast to know their fate. He also sort of hinted the bracket foe for Maryland might as well have said “Maryland.”
The Terrapins (25-8) actually travel to Spokane, Wash., as the fifth seed in the South Region, playing No. 12 South Dakota State at 4:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time March 18.
Layman’s point, though, was valid. “I think for this team it’s all about mindset,” he said of his squad. “When the team’s mindset is to go out there and play as hard as we can on defense and execute on offense, I think we are a hard team to beat.”
Coach Mark Turgeon said last week, following the late-season skid that saw Maryland drop four of the last six regular season games, was all about “working on us,” rather than prepping for an opponent. “Making yourself better, concentrating on yourself is really important,” the coach added about his priority this time of year.
He also backed up his senior forward’s assessment. “What (Layman) means by that is that when our guys lock in, they’re really good,” said Turgeon, taking the Terps to the tournament for the second straight year, something Maryland hasn’t done since 2008-10. “And so if they can figure out how to lock in for two games this week, then we should play well.”
The Terrapins and Summit League champion Jackrabbits (25-7) have never met but these two teams are familiar with one another. South Dakota State was at the November Cancun Challenge where Maryland beat Illinois State and Rhode Island as part of a 6-0 start. The Jackrabbits ran by Houston Baptist and Cleveland State.
“(SDSU) is a heck of a team, extremely well coached,” said Turgeon. We know how good they are. Our guys actually got to see them live for two games, and they got to watch us live for two games.”
What the Terrapins saw was a balanced squad that likes to spread the floor and shoot the 3-ball. The Jackrabbits’ leading scorer, 6-9 redshirt freshman Mike Daum, actually comes off the bench to get his 15.2 points per game. He had 18 in the 67-59 Summit title game win over North Dakota State, and pulled down a game-high nine rebounds to earn MVP honors.
The Jackrabbits were so balanced this year that they boasted the No. 8, 9, and 10 scorers in the Summit League. Senior guards George Marshall (14.9 ppg, 37 3FG%) and Deondre Parks (14.7 ppg) were right on Daum’s heels.
Reed Tellinghuisen, a 6-6 sophomore swingman, averages 9.1 and shoots 37 percent from 3-point range. Daum does most of his damage inside but is hitting 45 percent on his 60 3-point attempts, and has already set the school freshman scoring record for coach Scott Nagy.
The only other “big” in the starting lineup alongside Tellinghuisen is 6-9 sophomore Ian Theisen (6.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg). The Jackrabbits have hit at least one 3-pointer in 304 straight games but they could be bothered by Maryland’s length and athleticism on defense.
“They are a great shooting team and they can really space the court,” said Rasheed Sulaimon of SDSU. “We’re really going to have our hands full.”
Layman went even further. “I think me and Rasheed are going to be keys on the perimeter in that game, making sure every shot is contested,” he said.
The Terrapins are coming off perhaps their best defensive half of the year, what they did to stymie eventual Big Ten champ Michigan State in the semifinals. “We showed glimpses of (our best basketball) the last two games,” Sulaimon added. “I don’t think we have put both sides of the offense and defense together yet. [March 11] we had an excellent showing offensively (against Nebraska) and even though we lost Saturday, I thought we played one of our best defensive games all year, especially in that second half.
Layman, Sulaimon and the entire squad watched the Selection Show on the Xfinity Center scoreboard, sitting in a luxury suite. “Two years in a row we’re like the fourth or fifth team off the board,” said Layman. “We’re just excited to be going.”
Turgeon had somewhat of a feeling the Terps might land in Spokane, though he didn’t say why. “Sometimes it’s good to get away from home,” he said. “I feel bad for our fans. I feel bad for our families, it’s a long ways away on [March 18], but it might be good for us to get away and really lock in and concentrate.”
As for that No. 5 seed, especially when most forecast Maryland as a No. 4, well, Turgeon wasn’t sweating it. “I think when Michigan State came with (a) two (seeding), I think we all felt like we would slide a spot. And the Big Ten pretty much everyone slid a spot. Indiana is a four: they won our league. Purdue is a five: they’ve got a heck of a team.”
And Maryland is a No. 5, set to face the winner of the No. 4 California-No. 13 Hawaii game March 20. Two wins and Turgeon could be facing his alma mater, Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen.
No one was looking that far ahead. Sulaimon spoke for the Terrapins, who will depart for Spokane Wednesday. “Right now we’re 100 percent focused on South Dakota State and what we’re going to do to try to win that game. It’s all about winning and advancing. We’ll worry about that game and we’re not looking ahead. Nothing is promised.”
The Terrapins enter the tournament feeling much better about themselves than they did a week ago when they were in that stretch of four losses in the final six regular season games, including an embarrassing 80-62 setback at Indiana. The team looked disjointed and had obviously regressed since that best-in-school-history 15-1 start and since that 22-3 mark in early February.
Regrouping before the Big Ten Tournament, Maryland looked looser and ready to play better basketball after their double-bye. They set a conference tournament scoring record with 97 points in a dominating quarterfinal win over Illinois, and then – despite some fits and starts – went toe-to-toe with Michigan State (stop us if you’ve heard this one before), one of the hottest teams in the country headed into the NCAA Tournament.
Until the second half against the Spartans, though, the Terrapin defense hadn’t been anything to shout about. They held Sparty to 6-of-21 shooting in that final 20 minutes and hung in the game despite going 10 ½ minutes without a field goal themselves, one of the more incredible stats you’ll hear this season.
That’s because Maryland defended at such a high level, taking away some of Michigan State’s bread and butter. Sulaimon tighted up on Denzel Valentine and Damonte Dodd, again virtually unnoticed in the box score, closed down the middle when called upon. Robert Carter, Jr., was everywhere at both ends in a performance that will vault his stock headed into next season.
The Spartans finished shooting 42 percent, and that was the second lowest opponent total in the last six games since Minnesota hit 33.3 percent and BEAT the Terrapins. Maryland held Illinois to 38.8 percent in the Terps’ home finale, but the other four foes before Michigan State all shot 47 percent or better, and that won’t get it done for an extended Dance card.
“No one wants their season to end,” said Sulaimon. “You can’t take anyone lightly. You just have to have 100 percent focus and do whatever you can to win.
Meanwhile the Terrapins’ offensive woes are well documented. Trimble again struggled Saturday, missing 13 of 15 shots, though he did get to the free throw line 6-of-6). Layman, so dominant in his season-high 26-point performance in the quarterfinals, slipped back to a foul-plagued 2-for-8, and just nine points.
Sulaimon was just 3-for-10 and led the team with a modest three assists, again perhaps representative of the offensive dysfunction. Remember early season when the Terrapins always seemed to have nearly as many assists as field goals?
If Jared Nickens come off the bench and hits a shot early, he has helped but in many games, he has played like his picture was on a milk carton, missing.
This has been such a hard team to figure, to even track statistically. There was 60.3 percent shooting March 11 against Nebraska, then 33.3 the next day, though it was a major upgrade in opponent.
With Carter on top of his game, maybe he and Diamond Stone can become the focus for a final run. Inside-out, remember that mantra? Team will have trouble doubling both of them and more touches for them should mean more open jumpers for shooters that can certainly use that edge. Either way, that duo could overmatch South Dakota State.
The Terps’ late season struggles have also put a chip on this team’s shoulder. They certainly looked chippy against rugged Michigan State, Layman (of all people) picking up a technical early when vigorously wrestling for the ball. And actually, that sounds good to most Terrapin fans who have waited to see more of an edge from this talented team.
They certainly showed tenacity in the second half against the Spartans, taking charge of the game for stretches, and for the entire half defensively. “We feel much better about ourselves than we did a week ago,” said Turgeon. “We went and played well. We shot the ball well and really executed against Nebraska. Then we really guarded well against an excellent Michigan State team.”
The Terrapins are making their 25th NCAA Tournament appearance overall, though it’s only the second in the last six seasons. Maryland reached the semifinals of the 2012-13 NIT.
Don’t bet against the Terps in the first round, though. They have won at least one game in 11 straight NCAA trips, a streak they extended last year with a win over Valparaiso before falling to West Virginia.