Maryland men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon planned for his team to stay in Indianapolis through Selection Sunday and leading up to the start of the NCAA tournament with the mindset that however his team fared in the Big Ten tournament, it would be assured a spot in the 68-team field.
And barring anything unforeseen, the Terps are expected to make the annual tournament for the fifth time in Turgeon’s 10 years at the helm (last year’s squad was a projected top-four seed in a region before the cancellation of the NCAA tournament).
“We’ve come a long ways, no one can deny that,” Turgeon said Friday. “To have Selection Sunday and our team’s going to be called, I think six weeks ago no one would have believed that, except us coaches and us players. So, we’ve come a long ways. I’m proud of this group. Our name’s going to pop up. We’ve got a week, maybe eight days, to get ready before our next game.”
Here are three takeaways after Maryland’s run in the Big Ten tournament ended with a 79-66 loss to Michigan in the quarterfinals.
Maryland needs to continue to focus its offense on getting to the free-throw line.
The Terps are a vastly different team when they can make outside shots consistently but extended scoring droughts have come to define them.
Turgeon has emphasized the importance of playing inside-out and that philosophy — combined with getting to the free-throw — has proven to be the Terps’ best formula on offense.
Maryland is 7-2 this season when attempting more than 20 free throws but 0-5 when attempting less than 10. The dichotomy between the two statistics was highlighted during the conference tournament. In a 68-57 opening-game win over Michigan State, the Terps shot 38% from the field but were able to mask the poor shooting performance by attempting 28 shots at the free-throw line and making 20. But against Michigan, Maryland attempted just eight. Junior guard Aaron Wiggins, whom Turgeon implored to drive the ball against the Spartans, didn’t go to the foul line once against the Wolverines.
Michigan’s zone defense played a role in the low free-throw numbers, cutting off easy driving lanes, but for a team that struggles to shoot the ball as much as Maryland does at times, getting easy points at the free-throw line is imperative this time of the year.
Like it has all season, Maryland’s defense will dictate its postseason success.
Over the first half of the Terps’ Big Ten schedule, they allowed close to 71 points per game as they eventually dropped to 4-9 in conference standings.
Maryland turned that around to a 9-11 finish in the regular season and did it primarily on the play of its defense; opponents scored an average of 60 points on 37% shooting from the field over its final 10 conference games.
When Maryland is switching properly, rotating its assignments and not allowing offensive rebounds for second-chance opportunities, it can compete with most teams not named Michigan, which has scored 79, 84 and 87 points against the Terps, three of the top four scoring performances they have allowed this season.
Maryland is just 2-6 when allowing 70 or more points and its only wins have come against La Salle and on the second night of a back-to-back against last-place Nebraska.
Maryland’s ceiling isn’t high but the right matchups could make for an interesting few days in the NCAA tournament.
Unlike last year, Maryland won’t be a trendy pick to reach the Final Four. And given the lingering reservations about the Terps, they might not be favored to win their opening-round game.
But it’s March, and a favorable draw in any region can make for busted brackets and captivating Cinderellas.
Maryland’s two-game showing in the Big Ten tournament highlighted what type of team it should hope it draws early — and the type it should want to avoid in the first weekend.
The Terps are at their best when they can face a team similar to them — not particularly big at the frontcourt positions, full of depth or high-powered on offense (i.e. Michigan State). There’s a shortlist of teams the caliber of Michigan but Maryland isn’t built to win multiple games in a single-elimination tournament if it has to contend with multiple 6-foot-10-plus tall men and score 70 points.
“Our guys are more confident,” Turgeon said. “We’re playing at a much higher level. We’ve been a really great defensive team. That’s why we’re in the NCAA tournament. Hopefully, between now and our next game we can continue to get better offensively.”