When No. 24 Maryland (6-1) was projected to finish seventh in the Big Ten to start the season it looked like the Terps would have to exceed expectations in order to make the NCAA Tournament.
But one month into the season, the conference which put just four teams in the dance last year has seven teams in the top-25 of both the AP Poll and the new NET rankings. Even with four ranked teams losing in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge this week — Maryland’s 76-71 loss to No. 4 Virginia included — the Big Ten managed to tie the ACC with seven wins apiece in the annual series thanks in part to an upset win by Rutgers (picked to finish last in the Big Ten) over Miami on the final night.
Terps coach Mark Turgeon, who softened his non-conference schedule after the Big Ten moved from 18 conference games to 20, said a day before his team starts conference play against Penn State (4-2) that he isn’t surprised by the league’s early success.
“I felt like the league was going to be pretty good this year,” he said. “I felt like the top was going to be as good as it always is but I felt like the bottom has really made huge strides”
After playing only one team ranked in the top-100 in the first six games to start the season, the Terps got their first taste of real competition Wednesday night against the Cavaliers. Few easy games remain. Even the second-lowest rated team left on Maryland’s schedule, Radford, has road wins over Notre Dame and Texas.
“Does it put pressure on us? No, because we’re pretty good too,” Turgeon said. “We’re much better team than we were last year.”
Turgeon, who’s lost 11 straight regular season games against top-25 teams, will need his team to back up his claims in order for them to return to the NCAA Tournament. But they’ll have plenty of chances to pick up resume-boosting wins, beginning with upcoming conference games against the Nittany Lions and Purdue.
One thing Turgeon admits he must figure out for his team to maximize its potential is how to play talented big men Jalen Smith and Bruno Fernando together. So far this season the Terps have had much more success with only one of them on the floor at a time, mainly due to defensive reasons.
“It’s all I think about is trying to figure out how to make this team better,” he said. “There’s not a lot of time to change between Wednesday night and this game but we’re going to have some practice time coming up in December where hopefully we can get better at playing those guys together and get better defensively.”
Smith will be asked to guard Lamar Stevens, a 6-foot-8, 230-pound combo forward who is averaging 23 points per game on 46.6 percent shooting, tonight. Smith showed signs of progress defensively in the last game against potential lottery pick DeAndre Hunter but small ball still proved to be more effective as the Terps made a late rally with Darryl Morsell at the four.
“There’s a lot on his plate, guys,” Turgeon said of Smith, who unlike most freshmen is learning to play multiple positions. “He’s never played with a guy like Bruno [Fernando] and Bruno’s been so dominant on the block. It’s been an adjustment. Now he’s guarding perimeter guys which is hard for him because he’s never had to do it. He’s getting a little bit better. We worked a lot on it today because he’s going to have to guard Stevens tomorrow, their best player.
“We’ve just got to keep working on it. For us to be the team we want to be he has to be a better perimeter defender. He’s much better today than he was three weeks ago so I imagine that progression will continue.”
Turgeon added that “one thing Stix is not doing that he can do is he can make threes because he’s not getting enough of them. I think once we get some type of rhythm going he’ll make more shots for us.”
Penn State is more than a one-man show. Small forward Josh Reaves and center Mike Watkins — who missed the first five games due to off-court manners but returned Tuesday night to help the Nittany Lions upset then-No. 13 Virginia Tech — are two of the top defenders in the conference, while freshmen Rasir Bolton (10.5 ppg) and Myles Dread (9.8 ppg) provide extra scoring punch. Depth and shooting (32.1 percent from three) are both question marks but this could be the team that snaps their seven-year NCAA Tournament drought. Penn State ranks 10th nationally in defensive efficiency.
“Right now, we gotta be who we are,” Penn State coach Pat Chambers said. “We’ll be prepared for whatever they’re going to do, but it’s about our defense, our ball pressure, our deflections.”
A look back: One of the possible turning points in Wednesday night’s loss came when Turgeon subbed out four of his five starters at the under-12 timeout with his team trailing by just one. That lineup was only on the court for two minutes and allowed just two points but it seemed to throw the Terps out of rhythm.
Turgeon was ready to sub in top reserve Aaron Wiggins at the 15:30 mark but there was no stoppage in play for more than four minutes. He could’ve called timeout during that stretch but that could’ve just as easily halted momentum. He rarely — if ever — keeps his starting five on the floor for the first 10 minutes of the game without subbing. It was an unusual circumstance against a team that doesn’t commit many turnovers or fouls.
“If you watched the game, there was no stoppage in play so I had one guy over there — Aaron Wiggins — who sat [at the scorer’s table] for almost four minutes,” Turgeon said. “Bruno was exhausted, the next guy was exhausted so I just kept adding guys to the list. Then the score went from 22 to 17 so I know why you’re asking the question. But I felt I had to do it because guys were exhausted.”
Roster update: Two weeks ago, in the final minutes of Maryland’s 92-77 blowout win over Mount St. Mary’s, freshman wing Trace Ramsey made his first career appearance, burning his redshirt. Turgeon, who redshirted Joshua Tomaic and Micah Thomas as freshmen two years ago, attempted to explain the perplexing move after Friday’s practice.
“Trace might be playing before the year’s over,” Turgeon said. “That’s the whole thing. I’m not counting anybody out this year. It’s a long season. It’s November 30th and we play until March so Trace could be part of the rotation if he keeps working. Personally I don’t like redshirting freshman to be honest with you because you really don’t know what you’re missing out on. I think the second year is better to redshirt kids more so than the first year.”