Schmuck: For the newly ranked Maryland men's basketball team, this season is about to get real

The Maryland men’s basketball team cracked the Associated Press Top 25 this week, just in time to face their toughest opponent of the young season and embark on an 11-day stretch that starts with No. 4 Virginia on Wednesday night and includes two Big Ten showdowns and a game against Cinderella Final Four team Loyola-Chicago.

So, I guess we’re about to get a real sense of just how good the No. 24 Terps might be this season.

The early indications are good, but you can say that about a lot of major conference teams, since most of them pile up wins against unheralded opponents during the early part of their nonconference schedules.

Coach Mark Turgeon has probably taken advantage of that option to a fault during his tenure at Maryland, but there are reasons for that. He’s had several teams that needed every opportunity to find the right on-court chemistry, and this one — with its 10 underclassmen — is certainly no exception.

“I wouldn’t say it was an easy schedule — by no means — but it was a schedule that allowed us to gain confidence and get better and I liked the way my guys approached it,” Turgeon said Tuesday. “It wasn’t like we ever took a night off. There were some nights we didn’t play well early, but we always competed and we were always prepared and they were mentally prepared. That was a good sign for me, knowing how this group is going to react to games.”

The Terps have to be feeling pretty good about themselves coming off a 104-point performance against previously undefeated Marshall on Friday night, but they haven’t faced anyone close to the caliber of the Cavaliers. Then come back-to-back conference games against Penn State and Purdue before Sister Jean and the Ramblers come to Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore on Dec. 8.

“I think we’re ready for it,” Turgeon said. “Who knows what’s going to happen, but we’re further along than I even thought we’d be because of the summer trip. That has helped us. We’ve gained confidence.”

Turgeon was quick to point out that it doesn’t really get any easier from there.

“Yeah, it’s a tough stretch, but it’s time,’’ Turgeon said. “I think we have 25 games left on the schedule and 23 of them are just really, really good games … exciting for the fans and exciting for our team. Not to say the other two aren’t going to be. One of those teams I slighted there [Radford] won at Notre Dame, so maybe you can say that 24 out of 25 of our next games are going to be really tough games.”

Center Bruno Fernando, who ranks sixth nationally in field-goal percentage (.774) through the first six games of the season, said that the upward shift in the quality of his team’s upcoming competition doesn’t really change anything about the way the Terps will go about their business.

“I think we’ve been working all of the offseason up to now for the games coming up and for the games we had before,” he said. “It would be a shame for me to say we’re not ready for it. I think we’re ready for it. We keep working hard. We take one game at a time, getting better each game and just approaching each game the same way."

Leading scorer Anthony Cowan Jr. also disputed the notion that the early part of the nonconference schedule was just an orientation period and that the quest to reach the NCAA tournament really starts Wednesday night.

“I think it started with our first game,” Cowan said. “Obviously, Virginia is probably going to be our best competition, but I think all the other games kind of helped us get better as a team, especially in practice, and get ready for the game tomorrow.”

The Terps don’t have to upset the No. 4 Cavaliers to prove they’re a quality team, but the next couple of weeks should give an indication of how far they have a chance to go.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

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

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