As has often happened throughout Mark Turgeon’s eight years at Maryland, the road to the NCAA tournament begins — and ends — in conference play this season.
Until Maryland played Virginia on Wednesday, the Terps had not faced a team rated higher than Marshall, which is No. 99 according to KenPom.com.
Though the No. 24 Terps played well in spurts, a chance for a resume-building win eluded Turgeon’s team with Wednesday’s 76-71 loss to the fourth-ranked Cavaliers.
Maryland will have to start building its case for NCAA tournament inclusion with its Big Ten schedule, which begins with Saturday’s 5 p.m. game against Penn State at Xfinity Center.
The Nittany Lions (4-2) are coming off an upset of No. 13 Virginia Tech in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. It was one of a several upsets by Big Ten teams in the interleague matchup that ended in a tie (7-7) for the first time since 2013.
“I thought the league was going to be pretty good this year,” Turgeon said after practice Friday. “I felt like the top was going to be as good as it always is, but I felt like the bottom has really made some huge strides.”
Here’s three ways the Terps can win enough games in the Big Ten to get back to the NCAA tournament.
1. Become dominant at home again.
In Maryland’s first two seasons in the Big Ten, the Terps were 17-1 against conference foes at Xfinity Center, including 9-0 in their inaugural season. Over the past two years, Maryland was a more pedestrian 11-7, finishing last season with a disheartening 85-61 loss to then-No. 17 Michigan.
This year’s home schedule should help the Terps in their bid to return to the NCAA tournament after missing the postseason altogether last season. Among the league’s perceived elite teams, Maryland doesn’t play Michigan State or Purdue in College Park and won’t host the No. 7 Wolverines, currently the league’s best team, until March 3.
Most teams need a tough home-court environment to succeed. If Wednesday’s loss to Virginia showed anything, it proved that having a hyped-up sellout can help, especially with as young a group as this year’s Terps. Their performance against the Cavaliers should encourage a few folks to show up Saturday.
With the improvement in perennial bottom-feeder Rutgers, which won at Miami on Wednesday, and some others, winning at home is not going to be as certain as it was the first couple of seasons, when the Terps finished second and tied for third in the Big Ten.
“Does it put more pressure on us [to win at home]?” Turgeon said. “No, because we’re pretty good, too. We’re a much better team than we were last year.”
2. Figure out how to play Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith together.
Given the way most college teams play these days, this is a tough proposition, especially on the defensive end. That was apparent against Virginia, when Turgeon went to a lineup with only one of them — more often Fernando than Smith — in the second half.
Smith played 10 minutes in the second half while Fernando was in there for 14.
“For us to be the team we want to be, he’s got to be a better perimeter defender,” Turgeon said of the 6-foot-10 Smith. “He’s much better today than he was three weeks ago, so I imagine that progression will continue. ‘Stix’ is terrific.”
From an offensive standpoint, the two have played well together since Smith’s skills make him more of a face-up power forward and Fernando is more an old-school back-to-the-basket big man who has some ability to step out and shoot.
“I think Jalen’s doing great,” Turgeon said of the former Mount Saint Joseph star. “There’s a lot on his plate. He’s never played with a guy like Bruno. Bruno’s been so dominant on the block. It’s been an adjustment.
“Now he’s guarding perimeter guys. He’s getting a little bit better. We worked a lot on it today because he’s going to have to guard [Lamar] Stevens [Saturday], their best. He’s just got to keep working on it.”
But other Big Ten teams have struggled in recent years to figure out how to play two big men together for long stretches.
As good as Michigan State was at times last season, the Spartans had difficulty guarding teams with a lot of perimeter offense when using Jaren Jackson Jr. and Nick Ward. Purdue had the same problems for a couple of years with Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas.
“That’s all I think about, is how to make this team better,” Turgeon said. “Not a lot of time to change between Wednesday night and this game, but we’re going to have some practice time over December where hopefully we’ll get better playing those guys together defensively.”
Perhaps an answer is playing more zone, which Turgeon has never used much, if at all, throughout his coaching career.
“Certain games you can, but not the way they were shooting it the other night,” Turgeon said.
3. Shorten the bench.
During the media timeout with 10:27 left in the first half of Wednesday’s game, Maryland was trailing Virginia, 18-17. Turgeon made a mass substitution, taking all of his starters out except for freshman point guard Eric Ayala.
In place of Fernando, Anthony Cowan Jr., Darryl Morsell and Jalen Smith, Turgeon put in redshirt senior forward Ivan Bender and three freshmen — forward Ricky Lindo Jr., wing Aaron Wiggins and shooting guard Serrel Smith Jr.
It was the kind of substitution Turgeon had made in the first six nonconference games against lesser competition. Over the course of four possessions, the Terps committed two turnovers and missed two shots.
Fortunately for Maryland, the Cavaliers only scored twice to increase the lead to five. Even after putting four starters back in and pulling everyone but Wiggins, Virginia increased its lead to eight on a 3-point shot by Ty Jerome.
Asked Friday after practice what prompted his decision to substitute en masse, Turgeon said, “If you watched the game, there was no stoppage of play [around the 12-minute mark]. I had one guy — Aaron Wiggins — who sat there for almost four minutes. And then Bruno was exhausted. I just kept adding guys to the list, and the score went to 22-17, so I know why you’re asking the question, but thought I had to do it because guys were exhausted.”
Turgeon has stated throughout the preseason and the early portion of the season that he believes he can go nine or 10 deep, but the reality is with the way he wants the Terps to play — fast — he might have to go with seven or eight.
“We shortened it the other night more than I wanted,” Turgeon said. “But I felt like we had to. I’m hoping we can be a deep team moving forward. There’s no lock guarantees that if you’re in a rotation one game you’re going to be in the next if you’re not performing.”
While foul trouble and whether Maryland is pressing might preclude Turgeon from shortening the rotation, he needs to value each possession with his substitutions as he implores his players to with their own decision-making.
Though the Terps are not going to play that many teams in the Big Ten as good as Virginia — right now the Wolverines might be the only team in that class — Maryland is not yet at the stage where it will blow too many teams out, making each substitution vital.