Underrated before season, Terps now among Big Ten's best teams

Picked by Big Ten media to finish 10th, Terps are "probably the second-best team," according to ESPN analyst.

Two months ago, the Maryland men’s basketball team was picked to finish 10th by a group of more than two dozen members of the media covering the Big Ten.

Trying not to get carried away with the hype surrounding freshman point guard Melo Trimble and the talk of improved chemistry coming out College Park, I picked them to finish seventh.

On Sunday, ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Williams said before the Maryland-Oklahoma State game that the 17th-ranked Terps “are probably the second-best team in the Big Ten.”

After a 73-64 victory over the Cowboys at Gallagher-Iba Arena, there is little doubt that Mark Turgeon’s team is currently the second-best team in its new league.

You could make a case that they have accomplished more than any team in the Big Ten so far this season. And, given the development of its freshmen and the emergence of Jake Layman as a consistent scorer, the Terps potentially could be the best in the league by March.

Some of that has to do with the fact that two of the league’s perennial powers -- Michigan State and Ohio State -- have been more than underwhelming so far this season and a third, Michigan, is in the midst of a mind-boggling slump that has seen the Wolverines lose four straight going into Monday’s game against Coppin State.

The Terps are not the only team picked to finish in the bottom half of the league that has played better than expected.

Indiana is the only Big Ten squad to have beaten two ranked teams this season, and the Hoosiers, who were picked to finish right in front of Maryland, should be ranked this week after knocking off No. 23 Butler in Indianapolis on Saturday.

The Hoosiers also have one of the Big Ten’s embarrassing home defeats this season, to Eastern Washington last month, as well as a 20-point defeat in the Jimmy V Classic to then-No. 4 Louisville at Madison Square Garden a couple weeks ago.

(Interestingly, Maryland was supposed to play Villanova in the first game of that doubleheader, but the Terps backed out last spring after five players transferred.)

Considering that Maryland’s only loss was to then-No. 7 Virginia at home by 11 points and Wisconsin’s only loss was as the No. 2 team to then-No. 4 Duke at home by 10 points, there’s not much to distinguish between the 11-1 Terps and No. 5 Badgers, who are 10-1.

The Terps have clearly played a tougher schedule and won essentially two road games -- Sunday in Stillwater, Okla., and last month over then-No. 13 Iowa State in front of a pro-Cyclones crowd in Kansas City, Mo.

Wisconsin’s best two wins have been against Georgetown and Oklahoma on back-to-back days at a tournament in the Bahamas.

A lot can change over the next two months, starting next week when Big Ten play begins. 

The Wolverines are too talented to stay in their December funk. The Spartans will get Branden Dawson back from a fractured wrist, just as the Terps are about to get Dez Wells back. The No. 12 (and falling) Buckeyes will figure out how to replace Aaron Craft.

All three of those teams are too well-coached and their rosters too deep with former four- and five-star prospects to continue their early season struggles.

The Big Ten always has been a league in which it’s difficult to go on the road, where teams wear each other down in January and February and often have little left for the NCAA tournament in March. There’s a reason why no Big Ten team has won a national title since Michigan State in 2000, unless you consider Maryland in 2002.

This is not to make a case that Maryland is the best team in the Big Ten. Yet based on what has transpired so far this season, the Terps are not going to finish 10th, or seventh, and probably not fifth in the conference.

They are one of the biggest surprises in college basketball -- arguably the biggest surprise -- and what has already been a fun ride could get even more interesting starting a week from Tuesday in East Lansing, Mich., against the Spartans.

don.markus@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sportsprof56

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