COLLEGE PARK — When Michigan State went to play at Northwestern on Dec. 17, the Big Ten was on the brink of having home teams run the table in the first 14 early-season games. Only a 77-72 win by the then-No. 15 Spartans prevented that clean home sweep from happening.
Yet it didn’t preclude the league making the claim as the most balanced conference in the country. Still, parity doesn’t always mean proficiency or lead to postseason success. So as Big Ten play resumes this week, where does Maryland (11-2, 1-1) fit in the pecking order?
After splitting their first two games — narrowly beating Illinois, 59-58, on Anthony Cowan Jr.’s late heroics before losing at Penn State, 76-69, three days later — the 15th-ranked Terps host Indiana (11-2, 1-1) on Saturday at Xfinity Center.
Ranked as high as No. 3 in the country last month, consecutive road losses to the then-unranked (and now No. 21) Nittany Lions and Seton Hall pushed Maryland out of the top 10 for the first time all season. The Terps even dropped a couple of spots this week despite winning their last game, Dec. 29 over Bryant.
The Terps haven’t lost on their homecourt in eight games this season, and while the competition has been a little more legitimate than in coach Mark Turgeon’s first eight years, Maryland won’t face a ranked team at home until it plays now No. 5 Ohio State (11-4, 1-2) on Tuesday.
“Winning at home is definitely important,” sophomore guard Eric Ayala said after practice Friday. “It gives us an edge. I was talking to somebody yesterday about how home crowds are really an advantage to helping us win. Going into conference play, competition rising, we need every advantage we can get.”
Calling this year’s Big Ten “the single hardest league season I’ve gone through as a player or as a coach at this point in my life,” Turgeon said Friday that winning at home won’t be as easy as it has been in the past and winning on the road might even be more difficult.
“You’ve just got to do the best you can in every game, every night and know it’s going to be a grind,” he said. “We’ve gone through a phase where you’ve been everybody’s biggest game. That’s out. Now every game’s hard. It’s about staying fresh, staying confident, believing in what you’re doing and then get better as the season goes on. I think that’s big.”
Big Ten Network analyst Stephen Bardo has yet to watch the Terps in person this season, but sees a team that flashed its huge upside only once — during an impressive 21-point win over Marquette on Dec. 1 in the championship game of the Orlando Invitational.
“I thought Maryland would be right there in the top three or four [in the Big Ten], but they’re just so inconsistent,” Bardo said in a telephone interview Friday. “If they could play Marquette every game, they’d be one of the best in the country.
“That is one of the few times I’ve seen them have a complete effort tip to horn. I think they have as much talent as anybody in the league, but they’re just so inconsistent and it’s hard to figure what team you’re going to get from night to night.”
A year ago, the Terps entered the Big Ten’s restart with a similar record (10-3, 1-1), coming off a home loss to Seton Hall and splitting their first two league games. Maryland wound up going on a seven-game winning streak after the loss to the Pirates, including six straight in the Big Ten.
Ayala said he is much better prepared knowing what to expect in the grind of league play.
“Last year as a freshman, I really didn’t know what to expect in Big Ten play,” Ayala said Friday. “It was kind of just learn on the go. Now I know what to expect. I know it’s going to be competitive. I know it’s going to be tough. It’s going to be physical. I know the teams are going to scout our offenses. Take it one play at a time. Every possession matters.”
Asked if Maryland, with the experience gained by five freshmen last season, is in better shape to go on a similar run, Turgeon said, “We’ll see. I think the league’s tougher. I think our schedule is a little tougher than it was last year, at this time of year. We have played a top-10 schedule at this point and we are 11-2. We’ve done what we had to do.
"We didn’t play well at Seton Hall, but they were terrific defensively. Penn State is pretty darn good in their building. ... Have we not played our best basketball? You can say that, maybe in the first halves. ... It’s a whole new animal getting into this league. I just want to play better. I want to coach better. I want to give them more confidence. I want our guys to believe in what we’re trying to accomplish as a team.’”
CBS analyst Clark Kellogg said in a telephone interview Friday that conference play “is the crucible to see what teams really are, where teams have gone and who’s going to be able to handle that in the long run.” As for the Big Ten, Kellogg doesn’t think the top half of the league is as dominant as it has been and the bottom have is not as dormant.
“Without elite teams, I think it’s going to be tougher to win on the road,” Kellogg said. “When you’re really good, you typically can win on the road. … When you don’t have that elite, dominant team, and you have a lot of good teams, being at home is going to carry more weight.”
Bardo thinks it’s not just unique to the Big Ten.
“It’s like that across the country,” Bardo said. “Maybe Gonzaga, only because they’ll have a lighter conference load to hoe. But aside from them, I think anyone is vulnerable on any night now.”
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