COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Maryland, which has been to the NCAA tournament 27 times in its history, had never had to wait so long on Selection Sunday to hear its name called -- and certainly not in the six years head coach Mark Turgeon has been at the helm. So after 66 other teams were announced March 12, emotions became a bit pent-up in the Turgeon household. The Terps’ headman and his team had gathered in Turgeon’s basement, anxiously awaiting their postseason fate to be determined.
“Each time [a team was announced] it was like, ‘It’s going to be this one, it’s going to be this one.’ Then you saw Wisconsin was an eight [seed] and it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, what’s going on here?’” Turgeon said. “My heart was coming through my sweater. You never know; there are no guarantees. I was 99 percent sure we were going to get in. The last two years our name was called fairly quickly, and it was anticlimactic. But today was fun.
“The celebration was crazy. I didn’t even know we were playing Xavier for a minute. I got up so fast I almost fainted. I was sitting back with my feet up, and then I jumped up and screamed at the same time. It was total chaos in my basement. We had guys rolling around, jumping up and down, guys on the floor. It was a really special moment…. Our guys are excited; they’re really proud of what they did this year.”
Count freshman wing Kevin Huerter as one of those proud Maryland players.
“We had a lot of confidence we were going to be in, but we didn’t really know where we were going to end up. So you see all these teams go and we’re kind of on the tip of our toes for each one, thinking this could be us. Then it got down to the last two teams, and a lot of guys stood up,” Huerter said. “I know Melo [Trimble] put on his coat and was looking down all nervous, and I know I was nervous. But when they finally announced our name we went crazy. Everyone just jumped in the air. I threw a big fist pump and I think Melo tackled Coach Turgeon. It was a great moment, we were really happy and it was a big relief when we finally saw our name pop up.”
Yes, 35 minutes into the CBS broadcast, the Terps (24-8, 12-6 Big Ten) finally found out they were a sixth seed, headed to Orlando, Fla., in the West Region bracket, and would be playing 11th-seeded Xavier in the first round. Later that night, they learned the game would take place at 6:50 p.m.
The seed was a rather pleasant surprise considering Maryland faltered down the stretch, losing four of its final six games. Plus, the Terps dropped out early in the Big Ten tournament with a loss to Northwestern. But Maryland did finish 8-2 on the road this season, a stellar mark that ranks among college basketball’s best.
“It’s the hardest thing to do in college basketball, winning on the road. I said all along privately to my staff we were going to be a six,” said Turgeon, who shot down the notion the selection committee tossed UMD a bone for handing the Terps too low of a seed the last two seasons. “But we don’t take this for granted; it’s hard to do. We’ve been [to the NCAA tournament] three years in a row. We weren’t picked to be in this tournament to start the year, so it’s fun to get a sixth seed.”
Said Huerter: “We were speculating where we thought we’d be, but we didn’t really know. Knowing how the year has gone and the [lack of] respect we’d been getting, we thought we could drop as low as a 10 seed. And after seeing Wisconsin get an eight, we thought we could be below them. But every year [the tournament committee] looks at things differently, and this year they must’ve looked at our road wins.”
It was those road wins that defined Maryland’s season, per the aforementioned Melo Trimble. He said when the young Terps, featuring three freshmen starters, pulled off neutral site victories against Kansas State and Georgetown, and then beat conference opponents like Michigan; Illinois; Minnesota; Northwestern; and Ohio State away from Xfinity Center, it showed the Terps maybe had that “it” factor.
“Just the way we played on the road this year, I knew we could be special,” Trimble said. “Every team has bumps throughout the season, and unfortunately we had that as well. We lost two straight at home. But we bounced back, we showed fight and guys have just matured.”
UMD will need the starting freshmen trio of Huerter, Justin Jackson and Anthony Cowan to keep maturing in order to make a March run. Although they’ve had ups and downs, for the most part the three have been poised in the face of pressure, evidenced by the eight road wins. The NCAA tournament is a different animal, however, and first years have been known to either thrive or wither this time of year.
“I’m going to view that as a great thing,” Turgeon said of his team’s inexperience. “For guys that never played a home game, they were good; they never played a road game and were great; and they never played in this or that and were great. Sometimes youth and inexperience is a good thing. You just kind of show up and do it, and our guys are excited. I expect our guys will be prepared.”
Huerter wholeheartedly agreed with his coach. He said he, Cowan and Jackson have all discussed playing in the NCAA tournament and will be prepared and ready on game night.
“We were really fired up. I was really excited and telling people I wanted to play a game [March 12],” Huerter said. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve been watching Selection Sunday, watching teams get picked, but not really feeling the same emotion. Throughout the night I was extremely nervous, not just to see if we were going to get in, but to see where we were going to play; the type of teams we’d see. To be apart of that, it’s like nothing else. We’re going to be ready, and we’re excited.”
It should be noted that Huerter and Co. said they’d be ready for the Big Ten tournament too. And as Maryland built a 10-point second-half lead on Northwestern, the Terps certainly were in control. But then UMD became complacent and the Wildcats kept fighting, surging to a 72-64 victory March 10. The defeat was even more demoralizing since UMD was playing in its own backyard at the Verizon Center.
“I don’t usually get on my guys right after games, but I was upset [against Northwestern]. And I let them know it,” Turgeon said. “We were [tough] all year for the most part. We won so many games, and sometimes you think you can just show up. We get up 10, and you think you’ve got the game. And it didn’t happen that way [against Northwestern]. We really learned a lot about ourselves, we did some soul searching and we’re a better team for it. We started the season fresh [March 12], and we had a great practice.”
The Terps apparently went “hard” in practice March 12, with Turgeon pushing his squad in earnest. They’ll take off March 13 and then resume practicing March 14 and 15. Maryland is attempting to leave for Orlando during its off day too, in anticipation of a snowstorm that could complicate travel March 14.
“We really want to come closer as a team like we were in the beginning of the year. Some of the losses we’ve had, we didn’t think we were as much of a team as we wanted to be. We had defensive breakdowns with things like weak-side help and things like that. And offensively, our execution got a little lazy. Just not playing together, playing with all five guys on the court,” Huerter said. “We want to get back to doing the simple things well. So in practice we scrimmaged with a lot of different lineups in practice, and just worked on playing together. Hopefully we can continue that [team-first] attitude.”
The Terps will attempt to rekindle that team-first mentality against 11-th seeded Xavier (21-13, 9-9 Big East), a foe Maryland has never played before. The Musketeers have been rather inconsistent all year, weaving in positive stretches with those where they hardly looked like an NCAA tournament team.
Of course, Xavier took a predictable dive after losing perhaps their best all-around player, sophomore guard Edmond Sumner. Sumner was averaging 15 points per game on 48 percent shooting, while dishing out more than five assists a night. Sumner chipped in more than a steal per and averaged over four rebounds too. But he suffered a season-ending knee injury against St. John’s Jan. 29, and although the Musketeers won their next couple games, they faltered down the stretch.
Xavier lost six in a row at one point before bouncing back with a regular-season-closing win over DePaul. The Musketeers proceeded to beat DePaul a second straight time in the Big East conference tournament and then knocked off second-seeded Butler. Xavier fell to Creighton in the semifinals, though, dropping the Musketeers to 21-13 heading into the Maryland bout.
“Even though they don’t have one of their best players, they’re still a really good team with really good players,” Trimble said. “I know [Trevon] Bluiett is a really good player and scorer. He’s 6-6 and can do it all.”
Indeed, the junior guard Bluiett has had to step up his game even more with Sumner out. Bluiett leads the squad at 17.6 points per on 43 percent shooting and 36.5 percent from range. He’s dropped double-digits in all but a handful of games this year, has scored 20 on 16 occasions, and recorded a 40-point outing against then-No. 19 Cincinnati. Bluiett also averages about two assists and two turnovers a game, and is one of the team’s best rebounders (5.6 per).
“I did watch Xavier play Cincinnati and this Bluiett kid is off the charts,” Turgeon said. “He’s a special player.”
Another backcourt player to watch is junior J.P. Macura (6-5, 203), who is a thick, sturdy guard. Macura averages 14.1 points per game, converting at a 41.7 percent rate and 33.7 percent from beyond the arc. Macura is the squad’s best free-throw shooter too at 80.7 percent. Macura drops around three assists a night, grabs 4.3 boards per and is tops on the team in steals (49).
With Sumner out, Xavier’s point guard is freshman Quentin Goodin. The 6-4 floor general isn’t much of a scorer at 4.5 points per on 36 percent from the floor, but he’s handled the ball decently enough. Goodin has had his share of struggles, naturally, but he’s averaging a respectable three assists against less than two turnovers per game.
A starting wing, senior Malcolm Bernard, isn’t known as a potent offensive threat either. He puts up just 6.3 points per, although he hits at a 41 percent rate and has connected on 39 percent of his triples. Bernard records 3.8 rebounds per and is second on the team with 34 steals as well.
Xavier’s lone true frontcourt starter is senior forward RaShid Gaston, who stands 6-9, 240 pounds. Gaston scores 8.0 points on 59 percent from the field, while he’s No. 1 on the squad in rebounds (6.4 per) and blocks (17 total).
Junior center Sean O’Mara starts once in awhile, typically spelling Gaston or coming in when Xavier opts for a bigger lineup. O’Mara is good for three or four buckets a game and about three rebounds per.
One other forward of note, sophomore Kaiser Gates (6-8, 228), plays half the game and averages 5.4 points a night. He nabs 3.9 rebounds per too, but isn’t known as a terrific rim protector or defensive presence.
As a whole, Xavier scores 74.6 points per (sixth in the Big East out of 10 teams) on 45 percent shooting (sixth) and 33.6 percent from distance (eighth). But an even more pressing issue than the Musketeers’ 3-point shooting is their foul shooting, where they’re just 69 percent from the stripe (eights). Xavier does take care of the ball, however, and has a 1.2 assist-to-turnover ratio (fifth).
Defensively, Xavier doesn’t force many turnovers or block many shots. The Musketeers average a steal and a rejection less than their opponents this season, sitting ninth in the conference in both categories. They’re fifth overall in the Big East in scoring defense (71.4 points allowed per), but allow foes to hit at a 45 percent rate (seventh) and 34 percent from range (sixth). But Xavier does rebound well, ranking second in the league in rebounding margin (plus 6.6).
“I know Chris Mack is an unbelievably great coach. They’re NCAA tournament tested, and[Mack has] been to two, maybe three Sweet 16s himself,” Turgeon said. “Last year they were a two seed, so all their players have tournament experience.”
One player who has plenty of tournament experience for Maryland is Trimble. The junior has been to the Dance in each of the last three years and will be filling his young teammates in on what to expect come March 16 in Orlando.
“You win or go home. March Madness is a different breed of a tournament,” Trimble said. “This is what we’ve [worked] all offseason for and prepared for throughout this season. This is when it counts.”