It is one that Maryland fans, recalling how their team faded in the second half of the Big Ten schedule two of the past three years, might start thinking about as the Terps begin their most challenging stretch of the season.
Unlike the resumption of the Big Ten schedule earlier this month — when Maryland, after splitting its first two games in December, won six straight before losing to the Spartans — the Terps now have lost two in a row for the time in 2018-19.
Maryland plays four of five on the road after Tuesday’s home game against Northwestern, which aside from a win at Rutgers has struggled away from Evanston, Ill., including a 62-46 loss Saturday at Wisconsin.
The good news for the Terps is that, of the four, only No. 5 Michigan, which Maryland plays on Feb. 16 in Ann Arbor, has not lost at home in league play. Wisconsin is 2-2, Nebraska is 2-1 and Iowa is 3-2. Maryland is 3-2 on the road.
Here are 3 takeaways from Maryland’s 78-67 loss to Illinois:
1. No matter if is is listed as a neutral court defeat, this was really a home loss that looks bad on Maryland’s NCAA tournament resume.
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon used the term “neutral court” in talking after his team’s loss to the Fighting Illini, but this was a home game both in terms of how it was treated — with the Terps being introduced second — and how it sounded.
Though not as bad as the 68-63 loss Maryland suffered at Minnesota during the 2015-16 season, coming as the No. 6 team against a bunch of Gophers who had lost their first 13 games in the Big Ten that year, this was a damaging defeat.
Projected going into the week as a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament, the Terps could see themselves take a tumble this week in both the AP polls and the mock brackets. Maryland was the only one of 10 ranked teams to lose to an unranked opponent Saturday.
Any kind of losing streak will play havoc with their post-season seeding.
No matter if Illinois looks better on the court than its record — 6-14, 2-7 — it definitely won’t look good unless the Fighting Illini do a complete reversal the second half of the year. With three of its next four at home, it’s possible.
2. Michigan State and Illinois could give future Maryland opponents a better blueprint on stopping the Terps.
Despite a pretty significant disparity in terms of both talent and experience, both the Spartans and Fighting Illini followed similar game plans in beating the Terps. They were physical and very, very fast.
While Michigan State was successful throughout in shutting down junior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. (7 points) and running Maryland ragged with its transition game (29 fastbreak points), Illinois did a pretty good job running (27 fastbreak points) and keeping Cowan in check for a good chunk of the second half.
They stymied Cowan in different ways — the Spartans going man-to-man, while the Fighting Illinois constantly switching defenses, including an old-school box-and-one — and were able to beat the Terps down court by employing smaller lineups.
Going to a small lineup doesn’t necessarily work if both sophomore center Bruno Fernando and freshman center Jalen Smith (Mount Saint Joseph) are playing well together in tandem, as they were for much of the first half.
But if Maryland starts missing shots and turning the ball over, it’s tougher for the Terps to get back in transition if they have two bigs on the court and their opponent only has one, as happened when Illinois got back in the game by halftime and eventually took it over down the stretch.
3. Long scoring droughts are becoming more of a regular occurrence for Maryland.
After being pretty efficient running their offense in road wins at Rutgers and Minnesota, the Terps have started to be stymied by something that past Turgeon teams have had problems with: long periods without scoring baskets and sometimes without scoring at all.
It happened in home wins over both Indiana and Wisconsin, early against the Hoosiers when Maryland was forced to come back from a 14-point deficit before winning 78-75 and late against the Badgers when they blew a 21-point lead, fell behind late and needed a big 3-pointer by Cowan to win 64-60.
It happened in Monday's road loss at Michigan State — three different times — and put the Terps in an early 12-point hole, then when the Spartans scored the last 11 points of the first half and again when Maryland’s deficit was quickly doubled in the second half.
While it didn’t seem as dramatic Saturday, it was still costly.
There were two mini-droughts in the first half: going 3 ½ minutes without a field goal midway through the half, then going the last 5:35 of the half without a field goal as an 11-point lead got cut to four at halftime.
There was a nearly three-minute stretch in the second half after Maryland erased a 42-40 deficit to take a 57-52 lead and the nearly six-minute stretch when the Terps missed five shots, committed six turnovers and were outscored 13-2, with both points coming on free throws.
It’s perplexing to figure — and painful to watch — when Maryland goes from making the extra pass and executes like a Top 10 team as the Terps did early in the game against Illinois to looking so woefully out of sync and incapable of getting easy looks, as they did in the second half.