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In unpredictable Big Ten, Maryland men’s basketball showing consistency in climb up rankings

In the aftermath of the Maryland men’s basketball team’s 82-72 win Thursday over then-No. 18 Iowa, coach Mark Turgeon didn’t appear to be in the midst of a postgame celebration as much as feeling momentary reprieve from the day-to-day grind of the Big Ten conference.

Asked about Anthony Cowan’s career-high 31-point performance, Turgeon’s mind was elsewhere.

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“I just feel like I survived something tonight, you know what I’m saying?” he said. “This league is amazing.”

More than two weeks after it appeared that the then-No. 17 Terps were falling into the middle of the pack in the Big Ten and possibly out of the top 25 for the first time all season, Turgeon’s team is playing its best basketball since winning its first nine games and moving up to No. 3 in the country.

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“You’re just trying to get better,” Turgeon said Monday. “We’ve taken it [to] another level. We had to, we were 3-3 in the league. Guys are playing more confident. Hopefully we’re not where we’re going to be in another five or six weeks. Hopefully we’ll be a lot better basketball team by then.”

With four straight wins going into Tuesday’s home game against Rutgers (16-6, 7-4), Maryland (17-4, 7-3) is back into the top 10 after moving up six spots to No. 9 on Monday. A victory over the Scarlet Knights would give the Terps a share of first place in the Big Ten with No. 16 Michigan State and No. 20 Illinois.

Maryland will play the Fighting Illini on Friday in Champaign.

Asked if he feels his team is better suited to deal with its top-10 ranking now than it was earlier in the season, Turgeon said: “I don’t think we think about it anymore. You’re so used to everything and you’re trying to become who are. We keep getting a little better, which is encouraging.

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“We’ve had a number in front of our name all year. … I was told we jumped to [No.] 9, I thought that was quite a jump in one week. It’s hard to win out there. It’s game by game, week by week. We’re comfortable with who we are now. We weren’t comfortable with who we were two months ago.”

Cowan said Maryland’s true identity was forged in the aftermath of a 52-48 loss to Seton Hall in Newark on Dec. 19. As the team studied tape of that game, as well as from a 76-69 loss at Penn State nine days earlier, players realized that sharing the ball and moving without it were missing ingredients.

“We were able to turn it around a little bit on the offensive end,” said Cowan, who was named the Big Ten Player of the Week on Monday after his performance against Iowa. “We all just realized that’s not going to win us a [Big Ten] championship.”

Amid the tumultuous rides of a few other Big Ten teams, Maryland has shown some much-needed consistency and resiliency in returning to the top 10 for the first time in more than a month. Based on preseason expectations, this has been a topsy-turvy season in the Big Ten.

Teams aside from Maryland that many expected would challenge preseason favorite Michigan State for the regular season title — namely Michigan and Ohio State — have gone from being in the top five to finding themselves on the NCAA tournament bubble.

Teams that have long been league doormats — namely Rutgers, Illinois and Penn State — are suddenly staking a claim to having a rather important say in determining how many teams the Big Ten will get into the NCAA tournament and whether it will approach the record of 11 set by the Big East in 2011.

“Based on what we saw early in the season, Ohio State was within a game of being ranked No. 1 in the country, they were sort of the darlings of college basketball,” longtime college analyst Dan Bonner said Friday. “Michigan sort of replaced them as the darlings when they won those early games.

“Teams have had a chance to experience some adversity and how they react to adversity. The idea that the Big Ten is going to get 12 teams in the [NCAA] tournament is a little wacky. They may, but I’m not sure that they will. Things are starting to settle out.”

A lot has to do with the schedule, and the ability of teams to win on the road.

Michigan State seemed to be on cruise control until the Spartans hit the road. They lost at Indiana — three days before the Terps beat the Hoosiers at Assembly Hall — and again on Saturday at Wisconsin despite the Badgers playing without two starters.

Illinois is still the league’s biggest surprise, and perhaps its best team, evidenced by a recent seven-game winning streak that included road wins at Wisconsin, Purdue and Michigan. Then came Saturday at Iowa, when the Illini led by as many as eight points in the first half but wound up losing.

And then there is Rutgers, the poster team for the Big Ten’s unpredictable personality.

A bottom-feeder since joining the league with Maryland in 2014, the Scarlet Knights were nationally ranked for the first time since in more than four decades before dropping out after losing to Michigan at Madison Square Garden on Saturday.

“Even though we’re starting to scratch our heads and say, ‘Really, can Rutgers be that good?'” Bonner said Friday. “The fact is yes, they are. If that makes it a crazy season, it is a crazy season. But if you’ve watched Rutgers play since Steve Pikiell took over as coach, they’re all guys who can play.

“They play really, really hard. They play really, really effectively on defense. And surprise! This year they can put points on the board. It’s the same thing with Penn State. This is another team that finally has the talent to go along with how hard they play.”

Turgeon isn’t surprised by the turnaround at Rutgers.

“They’re as good as their record and they’re as their ranking,” Turgeon said Monday. “I know they’re not ranked this week, but they’re getting votes and they’re a top 40 team in the country, top 30 in the NET, maybe better. It’s the Big Ten, it’s really a tough league.”

Turgeon made another plea for the fans to show up — early — for Tuesday’s 7 p.m. tip. He also make it clear that the Terps are not looking ahead to what could be a first-place showdown Friday in Champaign.

“If have support like we did against Iowa the rest of the year we’re going to be pretty good at home,” said Turgeon, whose team is 12-0 at home this season. “It means a lot to our guys. Hopefully the student section’s packed again. We just worry about Rutgers.

"After that game, we can enjoy it and then wake up the next day and figure out how we’re going to try to play well in our next game. That’s really all you do right now because there’s really not a lot of breathers in this league.”

Rutgers@No. 9 Maryland

Tuesday, 7 p.m.

TV: Fox Sports 1

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Radio: 105.7 FM, 980 AM

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