Dec 4, 2013; Columbus, OH, USA; Maryland Terrapins guard/forward Dez Wells (32) beats Ohio State Buckeyes forward Marc Loving (2) to a loose ball at the Schottenstein Center. Ohio State won the game 76-60. Mandatory Credit: Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports
As I sat watching Maryland get thumped by Ohio State in the first half Wednesday night (down 43-26 at the half and shooting 32% from the floor), a cursory glance at Twitter told me that the Maryland faithful were having their standard Scorched Earth meeting following a blowout loss. War Nick Faust forever; War Dez Wells disappearance in the first half; War Jake Layman’s off shooting night; War Mark Turgeon; War this program forever! Gloom and doom is what Maryland fans are accustomed to lately, after all.
Zero NCAA tournament appearances since 2010, zero ACC titles in the Mark Turgeon era, and nothing of note except for Duke wins and road woes. The fan base that helped propel Gary Williams and the Terps back to relevancy following the Len Bias fiasco wants wins, and they want them now. They’re used to excellence; once you’ve had a New York strip steak, it’s hard to enjoy Steak-Umm. This team, with preseason fan expectations of being not just a tournament team, but a dangerous one, starting out with three losses in their first eight tries isn’t doing anything to sate that appetite for success.
But let’s just go ahead and admit something to ourselves: if you’re a fan, you’re inherently shortsighted and reactionary. You’re emotionally and monetarily invested in something, and if you don’t see early returns, you start to look for answers. Right now, this Maryland team hasn’t done much for the fan base to suggest that they’re going to be a powerhouse anytime soon, and that’s what fans want. Fortunately, that’s not what the tournament wants, or even what the tournament looks for in a team (historically speaking.) Of course, history is not for the fanatical in any way.
But even going back to non-ancient Maryland history can tell us that this team is very far from being in trouble already, and may even be right where Coach Turgeon expected them to be all along. For that, let’s just rewind the clock to ’08-’09 when General Greivis was in and the Terps were a dangerous team in the tournament fresh off a very close loss in the ACC tournament semifinal to a very good Duke team. Man, that Maryland squad was so money, right?
Wrong. For as good as that Maryland core would eventually become the following season, in retrospect, they kind of stunk up the joint in 2008-2009. They were a terrible road team that lost six of eight ACC away games, took an L against Morgan State at home (where the Maryland fan base collapsed on itself like a dying star), and got routinely blown out. Check out some of the losses on this tournament bound resume:
- An overtime OT win at home against Vermont
- An 81-59 loss to #9 Gonzaga at the Old Spice Classic
- A 75-48 loss to #21 Georgetown at the Old Spice Classic
- A 66-65 loss to Morgan State at home
Let me pause here and add that this “disastrous resume” all occurred on or before January 7th. How’d Maryland start ACC play that year?
- Losers of four of their first six conference games and finished 7-9 in the ACC
- Absolute manhandling 85-44 at #2 Duke
- Blowout loss 108-91 to #3 North Carolina on the road
- Blowout loss 93-64 at #13 Clemson
- 11-point loss vs #7 Duke
- 88-85 OT victory vs #3 North Carolina at home
- 65-63 loss to #10 Wake Forest at home
Until the ACC tournament happened, where Maryland beat two ranked opponents, that schedule was a trainwreck. It was incredibly difficult from the start, and Maryland failed at every avenue to show that they were a consistently dominant squad. At best, they were a truly Jekyll and Hyde team: incredibly lethal when they’re hot (beat eventual national champion runner up Michigan State at a neutral site) and incredibly terrible when they’re down (lost by 19 to Memphis in the NCAA tournament.)
And yet, they still made the tournament even though they were (literally) a below -.500 team from January 7th onward. Would you like to know how they managed that feat? Because they played an insanely tough schedule, lost about every one of those games, and came away with a high RPI. They faced 11 ranked opponents that year and only won two of those contests, but to get into the NCAA tournament that’s really all you need to do.
And this team, as much as I cherish now the bipolar swings I’d go through on a game-to-game basis cheering for them, was just not a well-assembled squad. Greivis Vasquez was actually worse his junior year than he was his sophomore season and their lone senior and crunch time big man was an undersized and slow Dave Neal who prior to the season averaged one point per game. The roster had three players who scored in double figures, and even though they had Greivis and Eric Hayes as juniors on the roster, they turned the ball over as much as they dished it out. And no one on the roster could really shoot the ball. They were not a very good team, but they were still somehow a tourney team.
If the 2013 squad played the 2008-09 team? They would eviscerate them. Even though both teams would only be able to play eight guys because that’s the maximum amount of depth they possess, the 2013 Terps would roll. Wells, Faust, Layman, Smotrycz, and Mitchell is, in almost every way, better than Vasquez, Hayes, Milbourne, Bowie, and Neal.
This isn’t to compare the two teams directly, it’s just to prove a point: even without a super-talented roster or a bunch of wins, you can still make the tournament just by playing tough teams. This year’s Maryland team is on pace to do just that.
They’ve already gone up against five RPI 200 teams, coming away with two wins in that grouping, by the way. They’ve yet to face:
- A George Washington team that may soon be ranked and tournament bound with the way they’re playing
- an undefeated Pittsburgh team that’ll be ranked soon (2x)
- an undefeated Syracuse team that’s #4 in the country
- a very talented Florida State team (2x)
- a UNC team that just beat #1 ranked Michigan State and will likely be ranked again soon
- a Duke team ranked #10 in the country
- a UVA team that looked terrible against a stacked Wisconsin team, but is undoubtedly good (2x)
Best part yet? They only have to win some of these games. The ACC is a gauntlet this season, and the Terrapins might end up being recipients of the same treatment that Big East teams got when their conference was just as loaded a couple years ago, and when the ACC was loaded back in 2008-09. Maryland doesn’t have to be perfect, they just have to upset a few teams, and Maryland is the king of upsetting a few teams. They may have lost Gary Williams, but if last year proved anything, it’s that this team loves to be dramatic about things. Any team entering Comcast still has the odds against them.
Right now it may seem like the end of the world that Maryland lost games against a pretty good Oregon State team and two extremely talented squads in Connecticut and Ohio State (both ranked and undefeated), but that’s what happens when you play a brutal schedule with a team that’s still retooling for the future; you’re up sometimes and you’re down sometimes. Mark Turgeon doesn’t have all “his guys” yet, and for now he’s working with what he’s got (just like Gary, actually). He’s actually doing a really good job of it as well, considering his departures (a lottery draft pick) and injuries at key positions.
Did anyone really expect Maryland to beat a top five team on the road? There’s a reason why Mark Turgeon was not happy with having to play a road game two years in a row for the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, then drawing Ohio State. Maryland’s odds of winning that game according to Vegas were 9%, and that’s on the high end. You need a cold shower and a hard dose of reality if you thought the outcome would be much different. The fact that they played them dead even in the second half shows that this team can play a good half of basketball with top-tier teams, but not a whole game…yet.
Later in the season, once Seth Allen is back, I have to think this team can play a complete game and upset some teams. They did it last season against Duke, almost did it against Miami, and came away with some solid wins in the end. Unfortunately, they weren’t a tournament team because their out-of-conference schedule was Jigglypuff. This year, it’s rectified to be an RPI booster, and the ACC is even stronger now, which gives them a chance to add to that resume simply by playing basketball.
Maryland “wants” a couple key victories before the ACC tournament to keep them from sweating bullets on Selection Sunday, they don’t necessarily need them. Actually, they just have to play the schedule, continue trying to get better, and hopefully progress as a team to the point where they upset a team or two late in the year and make it a few rounds in the ACC tournament. As history shows, the Terps could be just fine if they finished around .500 in the ACC for the season and upset just one or two teams, like Greivis’ junior year team did.
This team only has one loss so far this season that wasn’t predicted, but apparently it’s time to shut down the program. Look, they don’t really have a “true” point guard, they don’t have a big man who can log lots of minutes and play consistently, they aren’t that deep, and will play a tough schedule. Just like the ’08-09 Terps, who made the tournament anyway. Relax, stop focusing on what’s dysfunctional with this team and get realistic. Watch the season unfold without making blanket statements after losses, you might enjoy it more.