COLLEGE PARK, Md. – With Maryland (24-7, 12-6 Big Ten) off for the last couple days, not having to play until March 10, and their first Big Ten tournament opponent unknown, much of the focus March 8 was on head coach Mark Turgeon’s semi-controversial Twitter “war.” Turgeon’s comments, in which he called out the league for snubbing his three starting first-years from the Big Ten All-Freshmen Team, hardly moved the national meter in today’s day and age of controversial social-media posts. But it is a talking point for Terps’ fans and something Turgeon felt the need to address once again.
“When you have family, when you have kids you like to stick up for them,” Turgeon said. “I’m basically sticking up for my guys. I thought we had a great year and won a lot of games. I was stating facts and was proud of our guys. I’m disappointed for them.
“But, this might be the best freshman class the Big Ten has ever had. You look at the first team, the kid from Michigan State, Nick Ward, didn’t make it and he’s pretty good. He won Freshman of the Week four times. So there were a lot of really good players, but it should motivate our [freshmen] to work harder. But they handled it the right way and had a good practice [March 8].”
One of those three freshmen, wing Kevin Huerter, clearly anticipated the inevitable media inquiries. He smiled ear to ear when asked about the Big Ten’s perceived slight and his coach’s tweets.
“We loved [the tweets] to be totally honest. It just shows that he's going to fight for us. He's not afraid to speak his mind,” Huerter said. “As for the slight, it is what it is. Us three freshmen talked about it, and we would have been happy if any of us made it. We thought we had great years, and there should have been some recognition. But we weren't looking at things individually. It is what it is.”
Huerter, though, said he personally wouldn’t be playing with a chip on his shoulder when he takes the floor March 10.
“Not really. If we play harder it's because the stakes are raised in the postseason,” he said. “I think that's the motivating factor.”
Another motivating factor for Huerter and the Terps is defending their “home” floor. For the first time since UMD entered the Big Ten, the conference’s postseason bouts will be held in Washington, D.C., at the Verizon Center, which is right down the road from College Park.
“We’re excited to be playing [in D.C.]. I’m happy for our fans; they get to save some money not buying a hotel or airline ticket. People that never get a chance to go get to go,” Turgeon said. “So we’re excited and I think our energy level is going to be terrific.”
The Terps haven’t always played so well at their Xfinity Center confines this season (13-5), so that’s probably why Turgeon and his team are insistent this is actually a series of road games. Maryland is 8-2 away from College Park this year and 3-0 at neutral sights. Plus, the last time they played at Verizon, earlier in the campaign against Georgetown, they emerged victorious in what was practically the Hoyas’ backyard.
“I think we'll have the best of both worlds. We're treating it like a road game in that we're staying overnight at a hotel, but at the same time we're going to have our home crowd behind us,” Huerter said. “It should be exciting and we're looking forward to it.”
One of the main challenges for every team entering a conference tournament is maintaining fresh legs and energy throughout. If Maryland is to win the Big Ten tourney title, it’ll have to emerge victorious three times in three days.
“It’s a little easier to get the energy up this time of year,” Turgeon said. “We’re trying to have fun, and if you look at it we’ve tried to do that all season. We’ve tried to make things more enjoyable and will continue to do that. I think mentally and physically we’re ready to go.”
“Fun” isn’t exactly Turgeon’s plan for practice this week, however. Evidently he’s pushing his squad so they don’t become lackadaisical with the extended layoff between games. The Terps haven’t played since March 4, when they beat Michigan State.
“The coaches always tell us we have to bring energy every practice, especially with us being a young team. I think the one stretch where we weren't playing well we really didn't have good practices. But this week we're practicing hard and going more up-tempo. During the season, it was long and we didn't always go as hard to keep us fresh,” Huerter said. “But with the layoff we're scrimmaging the last 15 minutes or so, getting up and down a little more and going full-court to make sure we're ready.”
Added junior guard Melo Trimble: “It was basically all defense. We didn't like it, but hopefully it will help us lock in.”
Regardless if it’s offense or defense-oriented practices, Turgeon said the bulk of the time will be geared towards improving the Terps and not so much their Big Ten opponents. Since UMD could play either Northwestern, Ohio State or Rutgers March 10 -- and won’t know which of those three they’ll be taking on until late March 9 -- Turgeon suggested there wasn’t much use to preparing for individual teams.
“A lot of coaches spend too much time working on other teams. But for us, we’re just going to work on Maryland,” Turgeon said. “But [to win the tournament] you’ve got to be playing your best basketball. I think we got better defensively, and that’s got to continue. Our transition defense got better, the little things throughout our defense got better, and our rebounding was pretty solid. … Then the thing I think we’ve really gotten better at the last four, five weeks is [limiting] turnovers…. So you’ve got to be executing at a high level, and I’m hoping Melo [Trimble’s] shot [against MSU] will help springboard us into the postseason.”
Yes, the buzzer-beating Trimble triple that downed the Spartans March 4 is the type of momentum-shifting scenario that teams can ride for weeks.
“I’ve watched [the shot] a few times. It still looks good,” Trimble laughed. “But [the shot] wasn’t big just for myself, but for the team. Just getting that win against a good team like Michigan State is motivating for us.”
UMD will need its floor general and leading scorer in rare form to carry it to a conference title and beyond. Trimble has struggled at times with both his shooting touch and his decision making this season, while he hasn’t drawn nearly as many fouls compared to the last two years. But there still have been those nights when Trimble has taken over games and carried his team to victory, such as the 32-point effort against Northwestern and the aforementioned heroics against MSU.
“If he’s hitting shots he’s impossible to guard. I think he goes into every game with the same mindset: This is what I’m going to try to do. I’m going to try to get my teammates involved, if I have opportunities I’m going to drive it, and if I have an open look I’m going to shoot it. He sees how it’s going,” Turgeon said. “But I want him to keep being aggressive. I think we’re out our best when he drives it and gets the defense sucked in.”
Even if Trimble brings his “A” game, that doesn’t always translate into a victory. Which is something the veteran guard is fully cognizant of, and why he’s stressing to his young teammates that every possession is magnified from here on out.
“Once you get into tournament time anything can happen. Every team is going to give you their best shot,” Trimble said. “It takes a lot to win.”