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'We’re back on that hunt': No. 21 Maryland basketball tries to regain footing in slippery Big Ten

Maryland coach Mark Turgeon talks to the media Monday about trying to break a 2-game losing streak. (Don Markus, Baltimore Sun video)

COLLEGE PARK — The four-hour bus ride from New York City back to campus was mostly quiet for the Maryland men’s basketball team after its game Saturday against Illinois at Madison Square Garden.

By the time the Terps arrived at Xfinity Center, coach Mark Turgeon could sense that his players had put a stunning and stupefying 78-67 loss to the Fighting Illini behind them, even if he had not.

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While Turgeon could see that his team was “as down as we’ve been” this season, he also noticed that his players were not thinking about the team’s first two-game losing streak of the season.

“It’s easier for them. They’re kids, they’re worrying about what they’re going to have when we get off the bus for dinner,” Turgeon said Monday. “I think coaches take it a lot harder. It’s our livelihood. It’s me that I was worried about. I was more talking to myself.”

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The Maryland men's basketball team dropped eight spots to No. 21 in this week's AP Top 25 poll released Monday after losing consecutive games at No. 6 Michigan State and to unranked Illinois at Madison Square Garden Saturday.

In reality, it was Turgeon who made sure his team had put its worst loss of the season in the past as it began to prepare for Tuesday night’s home game against Northwestern.

“Getting off the bus, it was really tough. Everybody was still thinking about the loss and everything,” freshman wing Aaron Wiggins said Monday. “Turge told us right before we got off the bus that we’ve got to move on.

“Northwestern is a really good team, so we’ve got to make sure we come back and we’re locked in and focused and ready to play that game. I think as a team, we’ll do really well, bounce back, gain our confidence back and learn, regardless of the loss or the win. You’ve got to move on to the next game.”

After spending a few hours Sunday hosting a Special Olympics event and dropping eight spots in the Associated Press Top 25 poll Monday, No. 21 Maryland will try to recapture some of the magic it had during a seven-game winning streak that ended with a 69-55 loss last Monday at No. 6 Michigan State.

“We were in the clouds a little bit,” freshman guard Eric Ayala Jr. said Monday. “We’d see that No. 13 ranking, we went on a nice little streak. We kind of relaxed a little. Our practices haven’t been as tough as they were at the beginning of the year. Now we got to find that dog. We’re back on that hunt that we were on at the beginning of the season.”

Said Wiggins: “It’s definitely more motivation. Coming off a loss or two only makes you want to push to get better, so that you have a better chance the next game. The Big Ten is really a tough conference. … There are a lot of big-time wins from teams that weren’t expecting to win.”

While Tuesday's game against Northwestern will be the first the Terps play on their homecourt since a 64-60 win over Wisconsin on Jan. 14, it starts a stretch of four games in six on the road, including Friday night in Madison against the No. 24 Badgers.

No. 13 Maryland's 78-67 loss to Illinois Saturday at Madison Square Garden could signal some problems ahead for the Terps as they head toward a tough part of their Big Ten schedule.

The only home game in that stretch is Feb. 12 against No. 17 Purdue, which beat the Spartans on Sunday.

"We’re 16-5, 7-3 in the best conference in the country,” said Turgeon. “We know what lies ahead. We’re halfway through it, we’ve got to play well. We’re in good position. I thought we were in great position [before the losses]. We’re still in good position. We’ve just got to get back to playing well. Kids are resilient. It’ll be good to be home, we haven’t been home much. Students will be back. Hopefully that will motivate us to play well.”

The event with Special Olympics proved to be a good way for the Terps forget the way they collapsed on Saturday.

“It meant a lot. It definitely lifted our spirits up. We were able to maybe get our minds off of the loss, or even basketball for a little bit,” Wiggins said. “Just think about how thankful we have to be, how blessed we are. Being able to work with those kids was definitely fun.”

Said Ayala: “Getting off the bus was tough, but yesterday we had Special Olympics and those guys kind of really brightened our day up. It was all smiles. It brought everybody up. You couldn't even tell we had a game a few days ago. ...We just kind of have to have amnesia about it.”

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Turgeon certainly won’t forget — nor will the fans who made up most of the small crowd at the Garden — what happened Saturday.

The early 10-point lead and the two later 11-point leads in the first half that were cut to four by halftime. The way the Terps imploded after leading by as many as eight in the second half and were still in control with a five-point lead later on.

With the help of 15 second-half turnovers by Maryland (a season-high 21 for the game), Illinois closed the game on a 26-10 run to win for only the second time in nine Big Ten games this season.

After spending most of his first two NBA seasons buried on the bench with the Portland Trail Blazers, former Maryland standout Jake Layman has found his role as a key reserve and sometimes starter for one of the Western Conference's top teams.

“You’re going to have nights like that,” Turgeon said Monday. “I think the moment kind of overwhelmed us. [People said] we’re supposed to win, we’re supposed to beat Illinois. They’ve got some good players. … The building kind of caved in on us.”

As he did in previous losses to Michigan State and Purdue, Turgeon blamed the performance partly on his team’s collective youth, with five freshmen in the rotation and two of them starters in Ayala and forward Jalen Smith (Mount Saint Joseph), making the Terps the fifth-youngest team in the country.

“We played like it late, didn’t we? We weren’t very good late in the game,” Turgeon said Monday. “We didn’t play great, but Illinois played exceptional. They took control of the game when they had to.

“When the game was on the line, we didn’t play with poise. We had been doing that, and we didn’t it in the Illinois game. There’s a lot of factors that went into it, but have to be better late in the game.”

There is another factor. The Big Ten has gone from being top-heavy for nearly all of Maryland’s first four seasons in the conference to being more balanced in the fifth.

“I think this league is as deep as it’s been in a long time,” Turgeon said. “[CBS analyst] Clark Kellogg said maybe 15 years. That’s a long time. There’s just no bad teams. There’s a lot of talent. It is a tough league”. There’s talk of even a team with a losing record [in the league] getting into the NCAA tournament.

Not that Turgeon is looking that far ahead.

“March is a long ways away,” he said. “Hopefully we can get a lot better between now and then.”

NOTE: Turgeon addressed his first technical of the season, coming in the final minute against Illinois. According to a tweet from a student photographer working near the Maryland bench, Turgeon said to the officials: “You guys [stunk] today. This game’s on you.” Asked about the technical Monday, Turgeon said: “That was a clean technical. No cursing. Well-deserved.”

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