The Maryland men's basketball team's overall record and body of work throughout the 2014-15 season have put the Terps in far better position to secure the program's first NCAA tournament bid since Mark Turgeon took over four years ago.
Though certainly not a lock — especially after losing back-to-back road games to Indiana and Ohio State by a combined 43 points and barely beating Northwestern at home on Sunday – Maryland is at worst a No. 5 seed right now.
The upcoming schedule can also help the Terps recover from their first mini-slump of the season pretty quickly.
Maryland (18-4, 6-3 Big Ten) played five road games in the first half of the Big Ten season, with wins at Michigan State and Purdue. That means the Terps have five home games among the remaining nine.
The quality of the first half opponents was also considerably better: in the first nine games, Maryland played five games against teams that currently have a winning record. In the last nine, the Terps face only three teams above .500 in the league.
The toughest remaining game is the Feb. 24 showdown with No. 5 Wisconsin in College Park.
Turgeon has a history of getting his teams ready to play nationally ranked teams at home, where the Terps beat Duke twice at Comcast Center in his first three seasons, took down Virginia in the last Atlantic Coast Conference regular season game there and nearly beat Syracuse last season.
Still, concerns about the way the team has played over the past three games are legitimate. As the Terps get some time to make improvements before returning to action Wednesday against Penn State, here are three reasons for their recent struggles:
1. The ball has stopped moving
Unlike earlier this season, when fans and media marveled at the way the Terps were passing and being unselfish, there have been too many instances of players going one-and-one, particularly by senior guard Dez Wells and a bit by freshman guard Melo Trimble. There have also been occasions where other players spend too much time just standing and watching Wells and Trimble. Much of the success in Turgeon's new motion offense is predicated not only on the player with the ball making proper reads; it's also important that the players without the ball react and find open spots to receive a pass for a jump shot or layup. It seems that players have settled for 3-pointers way too early in the shot clock.
2. The center-by-committee approach is not working
If there's one part of how the Terps are playing that is beginning to most resemble last season, it's the lack of offensive production — and a defensive presence — in the post. After showing great promise earlier in the season, sophomore center Damonte Dodd has regressed from solid contributor to project. Freshman Michal Cekovsky, who looked earlier in the season like he was going to push Dodd for playing time, has not progressed past the point of making a play or two a game. As hard as senior Jon Graham plays on defense, and as skilled as senior Evan Smotrycz can be at times offensively, they are often exposed by a lack of athleticism. Of all the bigs, Cekovsky has the biggest upside, according to NBA scouts who have watched the Terps play. Turgeon's quick trigger when it comes to his bigs, particularly Dodd and Cekovsky, is understandable, though it would be interesting to see what "Checko" can do if left out there for sustained runs. Turgeon might be able to get away with trying that Wednesday night against Penn State.
3. Defense has become predictable — and vulnerable
With Big Ten opponents figuring out how and where to get shots — in particular wide-open 3-pointers the past three games — Turgeon needs to get his players working harder to find shooters and find ways to keep those offenses off-balance. As a desperation move, Turgeon has gone to pressing or playing zone, often with great success. The Terps showed that in their comeback win over Northwestern. Playing aggressive defense, particularly in the press, also seems to get laid-back players such as Jake Layman, and to an extent Trimble, more dialed in defensively. The Terps also have enough depth to give those pressing players a break and settle back in a zone. Having a shot-blocker such as Dodd or Cekovsky at the bottom of the zone can make it even more effective than last season, when Maryland did not have a rim protector.