Nearly halfway through the Big Ten men’s basketball season, the top of the league standings started to sort itself out.
Three teams — preseason favorites Michigan and Michigan State, as well as upstart Maryland — appeared to separate themselves from the rest of the pack.
As Mark Turgeon got his young Terps ready for their trip to East Lansing, Mich., for Monday night’s game against the No. 6 Spartans, he was asked about his team’s mindset.
During a conference call Sunday, a reporter asked Turgeon if a roster and rotation chock full of freshmen might be a little overconfident as a result of a seven-game winning streak.
“We won’t overlook anybody, especially when we’re on the road,” he said. “Our league is so good. There are so many good teams, and anybody can beat anybody on a given night.
“It kind of keeps you grounded. ... We’re trying not to get caught up in the wins and losses. We’re trying to get caught up in us and what we need to do to get better.”
Turgeon acknowledged that it’s sometimes difficult to win that battle.
“Our guys have been pretty focused,” Turgeon said a day before Maryland jumped from No. 19 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll to No. 13.
“It’s gets a little harder when you keep winning and people start to try to tell them [the players] they’re really good. We’re just trying to keep them balanced and try to get them better when we play better teams.”
A rare loss for Wolverines
In Ann Arbor on Monday, the Michigan campus seemed deserted with classes not being held on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
But inside the Crisler Center, student managers and support staff were getting the court ready for an early afternoon practice, the first since the Wolverines lost at Wisconsin on Saturday.
The 64-54 defeat to the Badgers was not only the first of the season for coach John Beilein’s team, but the first in a regular-season game since a 61-52 loss at Northwestern on Feb. 6, 2018.
After that loss, Michigan raced to their second straight Big Ten tournament title and reached the NCAA title game before losing to Villanova.
“The Wisconsin loss was tough for us because it had been a long time since we lost,” Beilein said at a news conference Monday. “I didn’t even know how to feel after it. If it wasn’t a national championship game, it had been a long time. We got through it, the sun’s coming up.
“We talked about it yesterday, to try to grow in the areas we need to grow the most, and there’s a lot of areas. … We got a formidable opponent [in Minnesota] coming in. The schedule changes, more games are on the road than at home. It all changes. You got to protect at home and win some on the road.”
There were some red flags about the loss to Wisconsin, which has been an all-too-regular occurrence since Beilein took over at Michigan, with 17 losses to the Badgers in 22 games. The biggest is that prized freshman Iggy Brazdeikis, the team’s leading scorer, went scoreless.
“These are just things that everybody goes through, whether you’re a senior or whether you’re a freshman,” Beilein said. “You’re going to have dry periods where the ball doesn't seem to go in.
“And then all of a sudden, you lose confidence. Or you lose something. Then you go right back at it. He’s a tremendous player, he can shoot it when he’s open, pass it when he’s not. I’m really proud of the way he’s handled the entire season.”
More roadkill for the Spartans
Of all the arenas in the Big Ten, the Breslin Center in East Lansing is perhaps the toughest place to play.
The combination of a perennial nationally ranked team, a passionate fan base and a Hall of Fame coach who tends to get his share of calls, particularly at home, is difficult to overcome.
In fact, going into Monday night’s game against Maryland, Michigan State had won 14 straight at home, including eight against Big Ten opponents, dating to an 82-72 loss to Michigan on Jan. 13, 2018.
But the Terps were coming in with three straight road wins during their recent stretch, with double-digit victories at Rutgers, Minnesota and Ohio State.
It would mark Maryland’s fourth Big Ten road trip in a five-game stretch.
“We all have to go through it. Everybody travels,” Turgeon said Sunday. “Of course, we have a lot coming up, because of the game in New York [Saturday against Illinois] also. … It’s just mentally, it’s the hard thing. Scouting report after scouting report, big game after big game. Just keeping them fresh mentally is what’s important too.
“We’re comfortable on the road. Our young guys have played well on the road, our veterans have played well, so it’s been a good mix, so we’re comfortable out there. We’re playing one of the better teams in the league, if not the best team [in Michigan State].”
When Monday’s game arrived, the Terps were mostly uncomfortable and barely competitive in a 69-55 defeat to Michigan State, which stayed No. 6 in the country.
The Spartans went up 18-6 at the start, scored the last 11 points of the first half to break a 20-20 tie and doubled the lead quickly in the second half.
While Maryland made a run to chop the lead back to 11 with a little under six minutes remaining, it was apparent that the Terps were not yet at the level of the Spartans, at least on their home court.
“The start of the second half, I don’t think we competed the way we needed to, but I thought the last 14 minutes we tried as hard as we can try, and that’s all I can ask,” Turgeon said. “We’ll learn, try to get better.”
The scary part of Michigan State’s performance was that the Spartans played their sixth straight game without junior guard Joshua Langford, and junior big man Nick Ward played only 14 minutes because of foul trouble, going scoreless for the first time in his career.
The biggest concern for coach Tom Izzo was his team’s 3-point shooting, as the Spartans went 6-for-26 from deep. Izzo wasn’t that upset that sophomore forward Xavier Tillman missed all three of his 3-point attempts, but one of them was ill-advised and wound up as an airball.
Izzo recalled a brief conversation he had with Tillman after he took the shot.
“You try to be kind about it, when you don’t hit the rim on that, I say, ‘Do you think that was a good shot?’ ” recalled Izzo. “He [said], ‘Well I work on it.’ I said, ‘Well I work on being taller, it just doesn’t happen sometimes.’ ”
In the hallway outside the visitors’ locker room, Maryland sophomore guard Darryl Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph) talked about his team learning from this game more than it did from any of the seven straight wins.
“For sure, a loss you focus on what you did wrong and where you can improve in order to win the next game,” Morsell said. “[After] wins, you’re happy you won, you still watch film and stuff, things don’t change, but a loss hurts a little bit more.”
Of the five freshmen in Turgeon’s rotation, the one who struggled the most was Jalen Smith. It was a rough night for the player everyone calls ‘Stix’, who finished with six points and three rebounds in 27 minutes.
“Stix is still young,” Morsell said of his close friend and former high school teammate. “I always say this, the freshmen are going to hit a little bump in the road. I think he’s taking this with a grain of salt, he’s learning from it. He’s going to be fine. He’s a smart kid, he’s a tough kid. He didn’t play the way he wanted to play tonight, but he’ll be ready the next game.”
Freshman wing Aaron Wiggins was one of the few bright spots for Maryland, hitting five of nine 3-pointers and finishing with a team- and career-high 15 points. Like the other four freshmen in Turgeon’s eight-player rotation, Wiggins seems to have a mature approach.
A reporter asked Wiggins how the Terps can build on their first loss in nearly a month.
“Definitely just encouraging each other in practice, playing hard and competing with each other and letting each other know that we can continue to get better,” Wiggins said. “This was a really tough loss for us after what, a seven-game winning winning streak. I think this loss was kind of good for us because we will be able to learn from it and realize that there’s still really, really good teams in our conference.”
Headed for a showdown
With the loss to Michigan State — a team Maryland plays just once during the regular season — the Terps dropped to 7-2 in the Big Ten and remain, for now, in sole possession of third place.
The Spartans are unbeaten at 8-0, with Michigan is at 7-1 after Tuesday night's win over the Gophers.
The Wolverines recovered from their first loss of the season by beating Minnesota at home, 59-57, but needed to come back from an early nine-point deficit and survived blowing a 13-point lead in the second half. Michigan won after Brazdeikis was blocked and senior guard Charles Matthews hit a short baseline shot at the buzzer.
"I mean, I’m happy," Beilein said. “But I don’t feel like we played that well today."
With their rivalry protected in the Big Ten’s unbalanced schedule, Michigan and Michigan State will meet twice this season. But the first meeting won’t occur until Feb. 24 in Ann Arbor, with the second matchup to close the regular season March 9 in East Lansing.
After years when the Big Ten was noticeably down, there are some mock NCAA tournament brackets that include as many as 10 conference teams in the field of 68. Maryland was mentioned this week as a potential No. 4 seed, but that could drop with the loss to the Spartans.
This week could help shape the direction of the Big Ten race. Michigan State goes on the road twice, first to Iowa (5-3) on Thursday and then to Purdue (5-2) on Sunday. The Hawkeyes have won five straight, while the have Boilermakers won three in a row.
“I think everybody realizes that the nonconference is the nonconference,” Beilein said. “When you get into it right now, you can lose a whole lot of games and still be a heck of a team. Playing home, playing away and the conference is really strong this year.”
Said Izzo: “The league’s still awfully tough. Everybody’s getting knocked off.”
Not everybody, at least not yet.