COLLEGE PARK — It’s early in the college basketball season and a case could be made that coach Mark Turgeon’s Maryland Terrapins have yet to be sorely tested on the way to an undefeated record and the No. 3 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25, but this is no time to downplay good news.
“I think it’s big right now for us,'' Turgeon said on Tuesday. "All the things we’ve been through with our athletic department, it’s good to have something. I don’t want to take anything away from field hockey and lacrosse, men’s and women and what they’ve done. Men’s soccer last year won the national championship. But I think this is something everybody can rally around. People are excited. We’re fun to watch. We’ve got really good kids. It’s great. It’s early. I’m just glad when we play to our potential. That’s really what it’s about.”
It’s not as if the Terps haven’t been highly ranked before, but as they prepare to face Notre Dame as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Wednesday night at Xfinity Center, the planets at the top of the rankings have aligned in such a way that it’s conceivable Maryland could be ranked No. 1 a week from now, which would be the first time in the history of the program.
Several of the other big college basketball powers have suffered unexpected early losses while Maryland has taken care of business, going 8-0 and winning three games in four days to earn the title in the Orlando Invitational over Thanksgiving weekend.
The Terps opened the season ranked eighth in the preseason AP poll and have moved up steadily on their way through their non-conference schedule. Maybe in some other year, that lofty ranking would just be a nice compliment — a transient honor always at the mercy of the next quality opponent.
This year, however, the Top-10 men’s and women’s basketball teams carry the extra burden of changing the subject after a football season that started with promise and ended up being another Big Ten embarrassment.
If the men’s team was feeling any pressure to live up to the billing on Sunday, it wasn’t in evidence on the way to a runaway victory over Marquette that clearly was Maryland’s most complete performance of the season.
The quality of the competition is ramping up and the Terps will face a disciplined Notre Dame team that ranks high among Division I teams in turnover efficiency and keeping opponents away from the free-throw line.
The Terps have struggled with turnovers — particularly early in games — but have made a habit of glossing over their shortcomings in the second half. They’ll need to start faster, as they did against Marquette, but it’s hard to imagine the talent, length and depth on this year’s roster being held in check for long.
“We have a different attitude this year,'' Turgeon said. "Last year, it was like, we’ve got five freshman in our top eight. Let’s figure out a way to win this game. We’ve got a little bit different attitude this year ... a better winner’s mentality. It shows by the way we compete and find ways to win.”
That’s why Turgeon doesn’t seem concerned that anyone on his team will let the polls get in the way of their performance, even if that alpine ranking ensures that opponents will be laying for them at every turn.
“We’ve had a target (on our backs) every game,'' Turgeon said. “Really, since we’ve gone to the Big Ten, except for one year, we’ve been ranked almost every Big Ten game. Whatever the number, we’ve gotten used to it. And Maryland should want to be where we are. These guys have got a lot of confidence. We’re not going to win every game, but we’re going to try to and hopefully we’ll play well in every game.”
Clearly, the No. 3 ranking is a major positive for an athletic department that is working hard to forge a new identity, but — according to sophomore guard Eric Ayala —it isn’t a hot topic of conversation in the Terps’ locker room.
“We don’t even think about it,'' Ayala said after practice on Tuesday. "We don’t even talk among ourselves about it. The coaching staff doesn’t bring it to our attention. At the end of the day, you really expect to win. As a competitor and as a top-tier program, winning is the main goal for us. However we’ve got to do it, as long as we win, everyone’s happy.”
Senior guard Anthony Cowen Jr. has been around long enough to know that what happens — or where you were ranked — in early December won’t seem important in March.