There have been times this season when having the youngest team in the Big Ten has been helpful to Maryland men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon.
In a few victories, especially at certain road venues, his five freshmen in the rotation weren’t burdened by the emotional baggage of having not played well there in the past.
This year’s Big Ten tournament might be another fresh start for the Terps.
Going into the event, which began Wednesday in Chicago for the league’s bottom four teams, many of the Terps won’t be carrying the memories of early exits the past two years in New York and Washington.
“We’re so young, our guys are naïve, which is good, we’ll go in and play,” Turgeon said Monday on a Big Ten coaches’ teleconference.
Seeded fifth, No. 21 Maryland will play Thursday against No. 13 seed Nebraska, a 68-61 winner over No. 12 seed Rutgers on Wednesday.
Turgeon said he isn’t feeling any pressure personally because of the second-round loss to Wisconsin at Madison Square Garden last season or the quarterfinal loss to Northwestern at the Verizon Center in 2017.
Both defeats came in Maryland’s first tournament game.
“Every year’s different,” Turgeon said. “We made the semis I think the first two years [in the Big Ten]. … [Two years ago] we lost to Northwestern, which was playing really well and we weren’t. Last year, it’s just who we were. It’s a different season.
“You go, everything’s different. It depends on who you’re playing, when you’re playing ’em, if they’re hot or not. The tournament experience is what we’re looking for too. … What happened last year, the year before, has nothing to do with this team.”
What happened the past two weeks might not have much bearing on what happens to Maryland in the postseason, either.
After getting pummeled by 17 points at Penn State on Feb. 27 and then losing a more competitive game, 69-62, to then-No. 9 Michigan on March 3 at Xfinity Center, the Terps closed the regular season with a 69-60 win at home over Minnesota.
“What we want to do is continue to get better,” Turgeon said. “We felt like we played well against Minnesota. We made some strides. We thought we played well against Michigan, we just weren’t good enough to beat ’em. Just tightening things up as we go into this conference tournament. We’ll be excited for it.”
Said junior guard Anthony Cowan Jr.: “It was important [beating Minnesota], going into the Big Ten tournament after a win. It think we’re in a good spot right now.”
Turgeon said Monday that he doesn’t mind getting in an extra game before a potential matchup against the Badgers in the quarterfinals Friday.
Asked if getting on the court sooner might play to his team’s advantage, Turgeon said on the teleconference: “I hope so. That’s the way I’m looking at it. That’s the way we’re approaching it. I think the more tournament experience we can get, hopefully try to get that first win … and hopefully it’ll work out that way for us.”
The victory Friday over the Gophers, who were coming off an upset of then-No. 11 Purdue on Minnesota’s senior night, also helped renew some confidence that might have been shaken during Maryland’s recent two-game losing streak.
But Cowan can remember a similar feeling two years ago. The Terps seemed to overcome a late-season slide with a road win over Rutgers and then a last-second home win over Michigan State (on a last-second 3 by the soon-departing Melo Trimble), only to lose to Northwestern in the Big Ten tournament.
It might work to Maryland’s benefit that Cowan and little-used forwards Ivan Bender and Joshua Tomaic are the only players left from the 2016-17 team that lost to the Wildcats, 72-64, in what was essentially a home game for the Terps in Washington.
Sophomores Bruno Fernando and Darryl Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph) are the only others left from last year’s team that saw its disappointing 19-13 season end with a 59-54 loss to Wisconsin. It stopped a stretch of three straight trips to the NCAA tournament.
“I just remember the end,” Morsell told reporters in College Park on Wednesday. “At the end of the game, we couldn’t get rebounds and we couldn’t score when we needed to score. I just remember that feeling in the locker room after the game, just knowing that your season was over and I don’t want to feel that this year.”
Win or lose, the Terps are considered a lock for a spot in this year’s NCAA tournament. Projected to be a No. 5 seed in most mock brackets, Maryland could move down a spot with a loss Thursday but might need to make Sunday’s final to move up to a No. 4 seed when the field of 68 is announced that night.
Cowan was asked after the Minnesota game if the team will take the same chip on its collective shoulder to Chicago after what transpired last season in New York as the Terps did going into the 2018-19 season when they aspired to be the most improved team in the Big Ten.
“Definitely,” he said. “We’re going to celebrate this one tonight and just get right back to work. I think the Big Ten tournament is up in the air more than it’s ever been in terms of any team can just go on a run. I don’t see why it can’t be us.”