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Three takeaways from Maryland men’s basketball’s high preseason ranking

For the second time since Mark Turgeon took over the men’s basketball program at Maryland in 2011, the Terps have been ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press Top 25 preseason media poll.

Again, it is based largely on expectations more than previous results.

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Maryland was ranked seventh in the poll that was released Monday, second only to top-ranked Michigan State among Big Ten teams and ahead of such heavyweights as former ACC rivals North Carolina (No. 9) and defending national champion Virginia (No. 11), as well as Gonzaga (No. 8) and 2016 and 2018 champion Villanova (No. 10).

Just as it was in 2015-16, when the Terps entered the season ranked third, Turgeon’s team is getting a ton of respect based more on what many expect to happen with a group that returns seven of its eight top players from last season — only center Bruno Fernando, who left for the NBA after his sophomore year is gone — than what it did last season.

Four years ago, the addition of two transfers, Robert Carter Jr. and Rasheed Sulaimon, as well as five-star prospect Diamond Stone, pushed Maryland into the spotlight after the team finished a 28-7 season with a third-round loss to West Virginia in the NCAA tournament. Though the Terps wound up 12th in the final AP poll in 2014-15, they lost star guard Dez Wells and a couple of key reserves.

This time, the ranking is based in part on the experience gained and the promise several of last year’s freshmen showed, in particular forward Jalen Smith (Mount Saint Joseph), during a 23-11 season that ended with a down-to-the-wire defeat to LSU in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Though the Terps finished the regular season unranked, Smith’s performance in the postseason boosted not only his own NBA stock but Maryland’s for this season.

Here are three takeaways from Maryland’s spot in the preseason rankings.

Aside from Michigan State and Maryland, the Big Ten is not getting a lot of love.

The Spartans, who reached the Final Four last season before losing to Texas Tech, are the popular choice at No. 1 going into the season. Michigan State received 60 of 65 first-place votes, with No. 2 Kentucky getting two and No. 3 Kansas getting three.

Despite the loss of two gritty glue guys, forward Kenny Goins and guard Matt McQuaid, as well as center Nick Ward, the Spartans have perhaps the best lead guard in the country in Cassius Winston, a rising star in sophomore wing Aaron Henry and one of the most accomplished coaches in Hall of Famer Tom Izzo.

Having said that, the Terps are certainly deeper and perhaps more talented than even Michigan State, especially if Spartans senior guard Joshua Langford doesn’t make a full recovery from the foot injury that kept him out most of last season.

Senior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. has more talent surrounding him in College Park than in his first three years, and it will be up to him — and Turgeon — to utilize it. Like Cowan, Smith was an All-Big Ten preseason selection, but he needs to become a more consistent and dominant player for Maryland to live up to the preseason hype.

Only two other Big Ten teams were picked in the preseason Top 25: Ohio State at No. 18 and Purdue at No. 23. Two others received votes: Illinois (No. 33 overall, with 14 points) and Michigan (No. 45, two points). Maryland will open its Big Ten schedule Dec. 7 at home against the Fighting Illini.

Why didn’t the Terps get another top 10 team in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge?

When the matchups were announced for the early December series over the summer, more than a few Maryland fans were disappointed to see Notre Dame on the schedule instead of Duke, North Carolina or Louisville.

The release of the AP poll only magnified that feeling.

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Though the Fighting Irish should be improved after a disastrous 14-19 season (3-15 in the ACC), and longtime coach Mike Brey brings local ties as a former player and assistant under the legendary Morgan Wootten at DeMatha, this game has absolutely no buzz.

Can you imagine if the Terps were going to play Duke, which was ranked No. 4 in the AP poll? It hasn’t happened since Maryland left the ACC and probably won’t unless the NCAA tournament committee tries as it did last season to set up a potential revival of what was once one of college basketball’s best rivalries? (The Terps would have faced the Blue Devils in Washington had they beaten LSU.)

After the last meeting in 2013-14, then-assistant and Baltimore native Steve Wojciechowski predicted a rematch. He went as far as to say the game would likely be played in College Park.

The Terps and their fans are still waiting.

And if not the Blue Devils this time, why not the Tar Heels or No.5 Cardinals?

Even going on the road to play North Carolina, as the Terps did four years ago, or Louisville, which has quickly rebuilt under former Xavier coach Chris Mack, would have been a no-lose situation for Turgeon’s team. Instead, the Terps have to hope that Brey’s program gets some of its mojo back quickly.

The Dec. 19 game at Seton Hall should serve Maryland well going into the heart of the Big Ten schedule.

Seton Hall is one of the teams that probably got an even bigger preseason boost than the Terps. The Pirates beat the Terps, 78-74, last season at Xfinity Center. Seton Hall finished 20-14 overall, and got trounced by Wofford, a seventh-seed, in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Yet the Pirates are ranked No. 12, the highest preseason ranking for the little North Jersey school since 2000-01. The ranking is the result of Seton Hall bringing back four starters, particularly senior guard Myles Powell, who torched the Terps for 27 points last season, including some big free throws at the end.

The Pirates were recently mentioned by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi as having one of the toughest nonconference schedules, which should help them with their NCAA tournament seeding. It should also help them prepare for Maryland.

Before playing the Terps this season, Seton Hall is scheduled to host Michigan State, play Oregon (No. 15 in the AP preseason Top 25) in the Battle For Atlantis and travel to Iowa State and local rival Rutgers, the last two in the 11-day window before playing Maryland.

Turgeon’s team was mentioned among four teams with nonconference schedules that could hurt their postseason seeding. The Terps play four teams that could be in Quad 4 territory, meaning they are all ranked in the lowest tier of Division I.

While Maryland is going to a better Thanksgiving week tournament than it has in the past — playing Temple in the opener in the Orlando Invitational, then possibly facing Harvard or Texas A&M in the second round — the Terps always seem to struggle with their first game after final exams.

Seton Hall’s game at Rutgers is five days before Maryland comes to Newark. The Terps have a nine-day break before the game after starting the Big Ten schedule with Illinois at home and Penn State on the road. Last year’s loss to the Pirates came after an 11-day break.

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If Seton Hall can withstand its tough early season schedule, Maryland will benefit by getting a potential top 10 team on the road before jumping back into the Big Ten schedule after New Year’s. Given the apparent lack of opportunities for the Terps to face an elite team this season, that too could help the Terps come March.

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