Analysis: Maryland has been a letdown this season, but it can still show up in March

A year ago, the Maryland men's basketball team was excited to see where it was seeded and whom it was playing and where it was going in the NCAA tournament. After all, it had been five years since the Terps last had been invited, and it was coach Mark Turgeon's first appearance since arriving in College Park.

As Turgeon, his staff and his players sat in the living room of his family's home in Montgomery County, the anticipation quickly turned to angst when the eighth-ranked Terps learned that they were a No. 4 seed and in the same region as unbeaten Kentucky.

Trudging to the basement for a quick team meeting, the group was mad. Maryland seemed to have good reason to feel snubbed after finishing second in its first Big Ten Conference season and checking off several boxes — road wins, top-25 wins, no "bad" losses — that the selection committee valued.

On Sunday, when the Terps were made a No. 5 seed, shipped out to Spokane, Wash., to face No. 12 seed South Dakota State on Friday and given a treacherous road ahead that could include No. 4 seed California and No. 1 overall seed Kansas, Maryland had no such reason to gripe.

"Sometimes it's good to get away from home," Turgeon said Sunday night in College Park after watching the selection show with the team at Xfinity Center. "I feel bad for our fans, I really do. I feel bad for our families. It's a long ways away on Friday. But it might be good for us and really lock in and concentrate."

If their performance in Indianapolis in the Big Ten tournament showed anything, it's that had the Terps played with the same level of energy and passion and, in spots, offensive execution over the course of the season, they might have been, at worst, a No. 2 seed.

Their road schedule in the Big Ten was difficult, as Turgeon has rightly noted, but Maryland's talent and experience should have been enough to post at least the same record (5-3) that it did a year ago, not have it reversed. Because of the way their nonconference schedule played out, the Terps had no margin for error.

Scheduling for a season is an inexact process, often affected by variables outside the control of a team's coach or director of operations or whoever else is involved in trying to fill dates. The higher up the food chain you get, the more difficult the machinations become.

Turgeon thought last summer, and seemed justified in his thinking, that he and his staff had put together a schedule that was tough enough to keep the Terps in the conversation for a No. 1 seed in March. All Maryland had to do was live up to the expectations heaped upon since July.

Two things changed the scenario in the past few months.

First, a pair of Maryland's nonconference opponents, Georgetown and Connecticut, had subpar seasons before the Huskies made a late-season run and won the American Athletic Conference tournament Sunday.

But the real reason the Terps find themselves in what is perhaps the tournament's deepest region is that they didn't come close to fulfilling those not-so-unrealistic expectations of greatness.

Even with the early-season wins over the Hoyas at Xfinity Center and the Huskies at Madison Square Garden not carrying as much weight as initially believed, Maryland's NCAA tournament resume was seriously lacking.

Unlike a year ago, when the Terps beat Iowa State at a neutral site, Oklahoma State in Stillwater and Michigan State in East Lansing, this year's team has nothing close to matching that. Maryland's two top-25 wins came at home, against a now-fading Iowa team and against Purdue, which has improved its stock over the past month.

Unlike a year ago, when the Terps were blown out on the road at Iowa, Ohio State and Indiana in a matter of weeks but had no "bad" losses, Maryland had an embarrassing defeat at Minnesota for the tournament selection committee to consider. Rutgers was the only other team the Golden Gophers beat in the Big Ten.

So as they await their first game against a South Dakota State team that whipped Minnesota in Minneapolis by 14 points in December, the Terps should accept the fact that being a No. 5 seed, especially this year, means little, and what happened the past three months means less.

"I think you have five, six teams that are really, really good, and everybody's going to see these five or six are going to win the national championship," Turgeon said. "Then you have teams like us that can get hot and are talented enough to get it done. It's going to be a great tournament for the fans. I just hope we stick around and be a part of it for a long time."

Who knows: Maybe they'll finally live up to those dreaded and not-so-unrealistic expectations?

Asked to describe the team's mindset, senior forward Jake Layman said, "Very confident. Chip on our shoulder." In the month of March, when the unexpected is expected, anything's possible. Even for as maddening a team as Maryland.

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