Maryland freshman Eric Ayala talks Wednesday in Jacksonville, Fla., about playing in his first NCAA tournament game Thursday against Belmont. (Don Markus, Baltimore Sun video)
One week removed from a stupefying defeat to No. 13 seed Nebraska in the second round of the Big Ten tournament in Chicago, the Maryland men’s basketball team vowed not to make the same mistakes in its NCAA tournament opener Thursday against 11th-seed Belmont at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena.
It’s not the shots the Terps missed or the turnovers they committed in losing to the Cornhuskers, 69-61. It was the mindset Maryland, seeded fifth and favored by seven points, took going into the game.
Freshman forward Jalen Smith (Mount Saint Joseph) was among several players who conceded that the Terps, despite losing two of their past three regular-season games, took Nebraska too lightly after beating the Cornhuskers in two previous meetings this season. That Nebraska had only six healthy scholarship players also gave Maryland a false sense of confidence.
“You can’t look past any opponent, and we were pretty much looking to the next game [a quarterfinal against Wisconsin] pretty much the whole game, and it blew up in our face,” Smith said, sitting in the team’s dressing room Wednesday afternoon.
Asked why Maryland didn’t come ready to play, Smith said: “I think it’s because we beat ’em two times. We should have known it is hard to beat a team three times in a row. We should have come in more focused than we were.”
For junior point guard Anthony Cowan Jr., it’s also about being more aggressive, especially on the offensive end. Against Nebraska, Cowan scored just one point in the first 30 minutes and finished with a team-high 18.
“I just got to look for my shot a little bit more, but also in the offense, don’t try to force anything,” Cowan said Wednesday. “Obviously this team needs me to score. I just go to get myself going a little earlier while also find my teammates.”
Cowan acknowledges that failing to win a postseason game since coming to Maryland is motivation enough.
“It’s all that I’ve been thinking about lately,” Cowan said.
Seeded sixth in the NCAA tournament’s East Region, Maryland is looking at these Bruins as if they were the legendary John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins and not Rick Byrd’s Bruins.
Kentucky coach John Calipari said Wednesday that he told Byrd that Belmont is “the most dangerous dangerous team in the country. Nobody knows how good you are and how good you coach.”
Said Maryland coach Mark Turgeon, whose relationship with Byrd dates to when Turgeon was in his first head coaching job at Jacksonville (Ala.) State: “He’s extremely well-respected in our profession. … We all know he could have coached at the highest level of college basketball, and his demeanor is so great he could have coached at the NBA level.”
The 65-year-old Byrd has been at Belmont since 1986 and has taken the little school in Nashville known for producing Country Music Hall of Famers — including Brad Paisley and Trisha Yearwood — rather than Naismith Basketball Hall of Famers to the NCAA tournament eight times.
Belmont’s 81-70 win over Temple in Tuesday night’s play-in game in Dayton, Ohio, was its first in the NCAA tournament.
“Sometimes I think they’re the most dangerous team to me,” he said. “Last night there were about three or four times when I was disappointed with the way we were playing. You think John’s got a little hyperbole in him every now and then maybe? He’s a great guy, he’s been a wonderful friend, for no reason, to me and our program.
“I think our team is at a point where there’s probably not a whole lot of teams that want to play us. But I’m sure Maryland is not really scared very scared of us right now. I mean they’ve got plenty of good basketball players that we don’t … the length and size and athleticism that we don’t face maybe once or twice a year.”
As Byrd said he and his players are motivated by Belmont’s 77-65 loss to Murray State and projected NBA draft lottery pick Ja Morant in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament final — ending a 14-game winning streak for the Bruins — the Terps seem to be equally fired up about proving that this is not another late-season slide and empty postseason.
“We’ve worked really hard in making this a new season,” said Turgeon, whose teams have lost five straight postseason games dating to 2015-16, including one as a No. 6 seed to No. 11 seed Xavier in the 2017 NCAA tournament in Orlando, Fla. “And by the way, my guys have reacted, I really truly feel that way.”
The second-highest scoring team in the country behind Gonzaga, Belmont looks like it could be straight out of the movie “Hoosiers” with a playbook that resembles the Golden State Warriors’ because of the way they shoot (fourth nationally in field-goal percentage and 14th in 3-pointers made) and share the ball (nation-leading 19.7 assists per game).
“We want to create easy chances, just run up and down the floor. It leads to easy buckets, easy layups, easy 3s,” said Terps sophomore center Bruno Fernando, who scored a season-low three points and took just four shots against Nebraska. “Guys get open more easily than when we’ve got to set offense and they’ve got to set defense. We’re a lot more effective when we run “
Said Ayala: “I think as a team we’d prefer to play faster, in transition, making plays and stuff, instead of a half-court game. I think it’ll be to our advantage playing that way.”
Many national college basketball analysts — including ESPN’s Jay Bilas and Seth Davis, who works for both CBS and The Big Ten Network — have picked Belmont to beat Maryland.
Byrd joked that Davis has picked the Bruins before “and been wrong,” adding: “Don’t you think those guys have to pick a few upsets? Otherwise they wouldn’t have shows.”
As for Maryland, Byrd said: “They’re a 6 [seed] and we’re an 11 and they deserve that. They play in a rugged league and they’ve been tested time and time and time again. We would be legitimately the underdog, but hopefully an underdog with a chance to win the game if we play well and they miss a few shots.”
Said Ayala: “We ain’t looking at all that [as far as predictions]. The whole year, it’s been us, trying to keep us together and stay locked in with our team and our culture. People have ignored us, even our fans sometimes go against us. So that’s not something we think about.”
Freshman wing Aaron Wiggins said in College Park on Tuesday that underrating Nebraska “definitely could have been a factor” in the game’s outcome.
“You can’t look past a team, you can’t look at a team and judge ’em based on the number of players they have or the talent they have,” Wiggins said. “A team that wants to win and is locked in and ready to play, that’s the team that’s going to come out on top.”
Toward the end of his news conference Wednesday, Byrd was asked whether he would pick Belmont over Maryland if he was simply filling out his bracket in the office pool.
“I thought the Temple game was pretty much a toss-up kind of game,” Byrd said. “But in this game, I wouldn’t pick Belmont to win. … There’s a lot of extra kind of easy points that they can get on us that it’s hard for us to get on them. It can happen, and we’ve had a lot of good big-name wins over the years, just not in this tournament.”