Terps Basketball: Perspective & Opportunity
It was an 80 day wait but the Maryland Terrapins finally won a game away from Xfinity Center with their win over Northwestern on Monday night. They were finally able to retire the litany of “Groundhog Day” lines about the usual modus operandi in away arenas – slow start, spurts of high quality play in the middle 25 minutes of the game and then, ultimately, not getting the critical stop or the key bucket at just the right time to deliver a dagger on the road.
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The win clearly affords the Terps multiple benefits: first, it gives them the opportunity to finally get back to .500 in Big Ten play. Little victory, I know, but you take them where you can find them. It also gives them – at long last – a road win in a season where any departure from College Park has been tantamount to being lost in the desert. Mathematically that road win is worth cash in metrics like the RPI and Kenpom but it might be worth even more intrinsically to a team that had to be wondering what the hell it had to do to finally win on the road. Finally, it gives them a season sweep over a Northwestern team that is very likely going to be their first round opponent in the Big Ten tournament in New York City next week.
Before getting to talk about the next ten days – senior day against Michigan and the Big Ten tournament to follow- I wanted to make a brief point about perspective. As ardent fans of a particular sports team (in this case the Terps) we can all be guilty of a certain focus and myopia. We all kind of assume that we are the ONLY team in America that is at Defcon 4 headed into the tournament…in dire straits and in imminent peril. The fact is that most of the 350 plus D1 teams are all reeling right now. Some of them reeling because they’ve had awful seasons and some because their seasons are simply on the precipice. Many have been derailed because of injuries or off court issues or whatever. In any group of this size you’ll have some teams that have reached their goals and just as many who have not.
I read something recently where, after three consecutive losses, there were some in the Purdue fan base (let me clarify…that is Number 6 in the country –at that time- Purdue) who were openly advocating for firing Head Coach Matt Painter. The absurdity of that comment is not worthy of a response but it speaks to the pressures among fan bases and jobs at this level.
Further on perspective: every team and fan base is feeling the heat right now. I get a chance to deal with opposing coaches when the Terps play them. Minnesota was a top 15 team preseason and now they’re playing on Wednesday night in New York by “virtue” of a season lost to unrealistic expectations, poor performance and – worse- awful headlines off the court. Just look at Head Coach Richard Pitino, his body language and the Bataan Death March stare he has working these days.
The Northwestern Bball story from last season was right out of Disney. But preseason predictions that picked them top four in the league didn’t seem to notice that they were 3-7 in their last ten games last season (and should have been 2-8 were it not for a miracle against Michigan). The league had caught up to them a bit. Now all of a sudden they’re straddling .500 overall and will probably end up 7-11 in league play and cannot seem to finish a game off at all. I’m not picking on Pitino or Chris Collins. These are all just tough jobs with limited margins for error. And it’s that way all around the country.
Even those that have overachieved are having issues. Nebraska was picked close to last in preseason polls but totally took advantage of a forgiving conference schedule to play their way into tournament conversations. They had a great streak going and then, almost inexplicably, after having won 8 of 9 games they lose at Illinois in a game that amounts to a death blow to your March Madness chances.
To their everlasting credit the Terps have never stopped playing this season. Even after a string of almost identical road losses at Michigan, Indiana, Penn State and Nebraska this team has stayed remarkably resilient. The second half at Northwestern was a combination of a couple of solid coaching adjustments and some serious resolve amongst the troops.
There can be no arguing the quality of Maryland’s guard play this season. With only a couple of exceptions sophomores Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter have exceeded expectations on almost every level. Now, all of a sudden, a rejuvenated Dion Wiley seems to want to join the party and has put together a handful of really impressive performances of late. I’ve even found myself uttering the almost unimaginable, “That’s a terrific defensive play by Dion Wiley.” The fourth guard – Darryl Morsell – has been thrust into a tough situation this year with the loss of Justin Jackson for the season but he will be ten times better for it next season. Morsell – along with Huerter- remains the team’s best perimeter defender and has become an adept garbage man and loose ball magnet. He’s a great kid with significant upside. You have to live with some of those maddening minutes.
I won’t deny that – for many reasons- the Terps have not reached the goals that I thought were attainable prior to the season. Yet. The win against Northwestern gives the Terps a bookend road win in their last road game of the season to match their road W at Illinois in the first Big Ten trip of the season way back in December and those are meaningful to the computer. It’s not much but it provided a much needed starting point. Michigan offers up the opportunity to avenge the most painful loss of the season AND get a top 25 win. A win against the Wolverines gives them 20 on the season and a .500 conference mark. Then you take that to New York where there is plenty of work to do but – in this day and age of parity in college hoops- they will get their opportunities to play their way into NCAA tournament discussion.
Yeah, I’m saying there’s a chance.