In describing the scene that unfolded in the basement of his family’s Montgomery County home as he and his team watched the field for the NCAA tournament announced Sunday, Maryland coach Mark Turgeon admitted that his emotions ran the gamut from uncertainty to elation, from possible dejection to delirium.
“Each time [a pairing was about to be shown], ‘It’s going to be this one, it’s going to be this one,’ and then you saw Wisconsin was an 8 [seed] —‘Oh my gosh what’s going on here?’” Turgeon recalled later. “When I saw the last part of the bracket, I knew we were going be one of the last teams called. My heart was jumping through my sweater.”
Said junior guard Melo Trimble, “It wasn’t fun.”
Turgeon and his young Terps had to sweat it out until the last of the 34 pairings in the field of 68 was announced. Given where Maryland wound up, it was worth every drop of perspiration.
With fans suddenly wondering whether the Terps might get snubbed, the familiar logo popped onto TV screens, turning suspense and possible March sadness into surprise and celebration. Maryland (24-8) has a No. 6 seed and will face Xavier (21-13) on Thursday in Orlando, Fla., as part of the West Region. The game will be televised on TNT with a scheduled tip-off time of 6:50 p.m.
Given the Terps’ late-season slide, including a quarterfinal round loss to Northwestern at the Big Ten tournament, it appears Maryland’s 8-2 road record (including a league-best 7-2 in the Big Ten) got them the third-highest seed of the seven Big Ten teams invited, behind only regular-season champ Purdue, a No. 4 seed, and Minnesota, No. 5.
“The hardest thing to do in college basketball is win on the road,” said Turgeon, whose team was also 3-0 in neutral-court settings. “We did it, and I think we were rewarded for it. “I said all along I thought we were going to be a 6…Those road wins are hard to get, and I think that’s what carried us to that line.”
According to Turgeon and others who were in his home’s basement, the Terps reacted to their invitation as they did to a number of their down-to-the-wire victories this season, most recently when Trimble hit a last-second 3-pointer to beat Michigan State in the final regular season game at Xfinity Center.
“I went crazy,” freshman guard Kevin Huerter said. “Going into the night, I was confident we were going to be in. We really didn’t know where we were going to end up, and it seemed like for every single announcement it seemed like we were on the tip of our toes. As it went on, a lot of us were nervous we weren’t going to get in. When they finally announced our names, it was a great moment.”
Said Turgeon, “It was total chaos.”
Huerter said he watched Trimble pull the hood of his sweatshirt over his head, seemingly depressed about the possibility of not going to his third NCAA tournament in as many years. Those emotions changed drastically, as he tackled his coach upon the Terps’ name popping up.
Turgeon, sitting in a beanbag chair with his son Leo, said he “nearly fainted” after jumping up too fast when he saw his school’s name appear.
“The last two years, we were one of the first couple of teams to be called. Just to be the exact opposite this year was really nerve-wracking,” Trimble said. “We had to wait throughout the whole show to see when we were going to be called. When we were finally called, we were so happy and we feel blessed to be in the situation that we’re in now, to be in the tournament.”
Not only did the Terps get a higher seed than many expected, the draw they received is potentially better than either of the previous two years.
Last season, Maryland was seeded fifth and, after beating a pair of double-digit seeds, lost to Kansas, the top-seeded team in the field, in the Terps’ first Sweet 16 appearance since 2003.
Two years ago, as the fourth-seed, the Terps lost a second-round game to fifth-seed West Virginia; had Maryland won, it would have met Kentucky, undefeated to that point, in the Sweet 16.
The two teams Maryland could face in Orlando have struggled down the stretch.
Since losing star point guard Edmond Sumner with season-ending knee injury on Jan. 29, the Musketeers have gone 6-7 with three wins against Big East bottom-feeder DePaul.
If the Terps get past Xavier, they will likely face third-seeded Florida State,which will play Florida Gulf Coast in the first round.
After starting 16-1 and 4-0 in the ACC with a win over then No. 7 Duke, Florida State finished 25-8 overall and 12-6 in the league. It won just three of nine league games away from Tallahassee.
Maryland has had it’s own struggles late in the year, including a poor performance in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals Friday.
But Trimble said that he knew this year’s team was NCAA Tournament-worthy early on, after losing four starters from last year’s teams.
“Just how well we played on the road,” Trimble said. “Just the way we played and competed out there. I knew we were going to be special.”
Though he acknowledged the late-season slide in which Maryland lost six of its last 10 games —“every team is going to have their bumps and bruises throughout the season,” he said – the first-team all-Big Ten player said that ending the regular season with the win over the Spartans “showed the fight we had and how the guys matured.”
Turgeon said he didn’t allow the team to move on immediately from its disappointing 72-64 loss to Northwestern on Friday night at the Verizon. On Sunday, even before the NCAA tournament field was unveiled, Turgeon said that his team had moved on.
“I usually don’t get on my guys right after a game, but I was upset,” Turgeon said Sunday. “I let them know it. We started the season fresh today. The practice schedule said No. 1 on it, not 86 or 87. We had a great practice today. We want to move forward. We didn’t play well [Friday]. Give Northwestern a lot of credit. We made some strides today in the right direction.”
Throughout all the selection shows Turgeon has watched throughout his 19-year head coaching career, he said nothing came close to what transpired Sunday.
Turgeon even thought, however briefly, of what he would say if the Terps had been snubbed from the field.
“As a leader, when it started to wind down, ‘OK, what am I going to say if it doesn’t [happen],” Turgeon recalled. “In my mind, ‘We have to be in; we beat Oklahoma State, we beat Kansas State, we beat Minnesota on the road, and they were a 5. We have to be in.’ I don’t like it, but when you know you’re in, it makes it a little bit better. When they called our name, it was fun.”