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Finally at full strength, Terps ready for showtime

It's almost showtime for Mark Turgeon and Maryland, who will make their Big Ten debut Tuesday at Michigan State, and there is every reason to believe they are ready to take the next step in what has been an amazing transformation.

How amazing?

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Well, who could have imagined when the 2013-14 team was being disassembled last spring that the remaining upperclassmen and the strong-but-unproven recruiting class would mesh so seamlessly and cruise through their nonconference schedule with a 12-1 record?

Turgeon might have, because it was clear from the earliest practice sessions last summer that he felt he had the makings of a special chemistry, but fans hear that kind of buildup every year. The trick is taking that formula from the experimental stage to the one that's made of hardwood.

The Terps clearly have done that, showing terrific maturity for a team so infused with youth, blinking only once in 13 nonconference games, and that was against No. 7 Virginia with top scorer Dez Wells out after wrist surgery.

It's fair to say the first two months of the season have gone as well as anyone could have reasonably expected.

"I don't know if I could ask for anything more … to be where we are,'' Turgeon said. "The one loss was to a team that was terrific that night. I'm not sure if we played them 100 times in a row with that lineup we could beat them. So, we had two really good wins. We beat a lot of really solid teams that'll do well in their leagues. I think our RPI will grow as the year goes on. So, we're very confident.

Consider this: When the Terps took the floor at Xfinity Center for Saturday's 72-56 victory over the Golden Grizzlies from Oakland University, it was the first time this season Turgeon had every one of his key players available. Wells returned to action after a month recovering from the injury he suffered in the impressive November victory over No. 13 Iowa State, which was the last of five games that senior forward Evan Smotrycz missed at the outset of the season with a foot injury.

In their absence, the Terps turned to junior Jake Layman and senior transfer Richaud Pack for leadership and flashy freshman Melo Trimble for a tour de force performance that has quickly established him as one of the top freshmen in the country.

"Those guys are battle-tested,'' said Wells, who played 22 minutes in his return and scored 10 points. "They've won some really important games with me and without me. Even the UVA game was a good game for them. It was a good experience for those guys, so they're not going to be intimidated by anything or anybody and that's a good asset to have going on the road."

Of course, we're talking about the nonconference schedule of a super conference team, so the Terps were expected to put together a strong win-loss record with a number of games against unheralded opponents like the one they defeated Saturday. It was more the way they played together and handled adversity that boosted them into the Top 25.

Their No 15 ranking is the highest by a Maryland men's team since January 2006.

The Big Ten schedule will present new challenges and there's no telling how the young Terps will respond, but they are now the second-highest-ranked team in their new conference (behind No. 6 Wisconsin) and have a pair of victories over formidable Big 12 opponents.

Not bad for a team that was rated No. 10 in the Big Ten in a preseason media poll and picked seventh by conference coaches. Of course, the challenge of disproving those tepid early evaluations is still ahead.

The nonconference schedule was played almost entirely in front of friendly crowds in College Park, so there still is some question of how the inexperienced underclass will handle the hostile environments they are sure to encounter as the Terps make their way through their nine-game Big Ten road schedule.

If their limited exposure on the road is any indication, however, they should be able to keep their cool in front of a tough crowd. They won the CBE Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City by beating Arizona State and upsetting Iowa State on a neutral court, then went into Stillwater, Okla., and scored a nine-point victory over Oklahoma State with Wells still a week away.

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Tuesday's game at Michigan State will be the next big test. No one expects the young Terps to storm through the Big Ten in their debut season, but they look like they are ready for the challenge.

"We've got a tough start, three of the first four on the road and Minnesota at home will be a tough game," Turgeon said, "but we're a very confident team and we feel very good about ourselves."

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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