With all the controversy and uncertainty surrounding the start of the Maryland football season, fans of the men’s basketball team probably looked at the release of the Big Ten portion of the schedule Tuesday as a brief respite from what could be another long autumn in College Park.
Not that there’s a lot of buzz about Mark Turgeon’s team coming off a disappointing 19-13 season a year ago, which ended a stretch of three straight NCAA tournament appearances and raised questions about Turgeon’s longterm job security.
Even with Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson both turning pro after their sophomore years, the Terps are left with a talented group that includes three returning starters and a recruiting class led by power forward Jalen Smith (Mount Saint Joseph) that was ranked No. 7 overall by 247sports.com as well as No. 1 in the Big Ten.
But how does the Big Ten schedule help or hurt Maryland’s chances of returning to the NCAA tournament next March?
Here are five things to know about the schedule:
1. The Terps have to take advantage of the first seven games in a newly expanded 20-game slate.
With four of the games being played at Xfinity Center, starting with the league opener against Penn State on Dec. 1, Maryland needs to be able to hold serve in College Park. It’s not going to be easy since neither the Nittany Lions or any of the other three teams are considered bottom-feeders. But there likely won’t be a nationally ranked opponent in the bunch.
The road has been tougher for the Terps since their first couple of years in the Big Ten, including a 2-7 record a year ago that started well (an overtime win at Illinois) and ended well (with a come-from-behind win at Northwestern) but included a lot of missed opportunities (last-second losses at Michigan, Indiana and Nebraska) in between. Of the three road games, the Dec. 6 trip to Purdue is likely to be the most challenging.
2. The month-long stretch of nine games between mid-January and mid-February could wind up determining Maryland’s season.
It’s not just that the Terps will be playing six games on the road, two at home and one at New York’s Madison Square Garden. While the breaks between games are for the most part longer this season — since the Big Ten tournament will be played at its normal time after starting a week early last season — the gantlet will still be difficult.
The back-to-back road games at Ohio State (Jan. 18) and Michigan State (Jan. 21) might not be as fearsome as going to Columbus and East Lansing back-to-back for football, but the longer trips to Wisconsin (Feb. 1), Nebraska (Feb. 6) and Iowa (Feb. 18) are often unpredictable for a team that struggled so much on the road last season.
3. The Terps might be able to build some momentum on the back end.
Maryland has struggled down the stretch the past three years, partly because of injuries and inexperience, as well as having to play more on the road than at home in late February and early March. While still on the young side to start the season given the team’s five-man recruiting class, and that injuries are tough to predict (though the Terps have had more than their share lately), this year’s late Big Ten schedule slants slightly in their favor.
The Terps play three of their last four games at home, including the final two. While they have to make an often treacherous trip to Penn State — with weather and a lack of atmosphere at the Bryce Jordan Center part of the tough sledding — in that stretch, Maryland could be in better shape going into the Big Ten tournament in Chicago than in recent years.
4. It’s a schedule even Turgeon might like.
Turgeon said the most overlooked aspect of last season’s disappointment was never being to build momentum by alternating between College Park and the road all the way through the Big Ten season. It was one of many reasons that the Terps couldn’t put together any decent winning streaks. (Along with poor starts and or poor finishes away from home.)
Aside from the last two games at home against Michigan (March 3) and Minnesota (March 8), the Terps have another two-game homestand with Indiana (Jan 11) and Wisconsin (Jan. 14), as well as what should be a home-game atmosphere Jan. 26 against Illinois at the Garden followed by Northwestern on Jan. 29 at Xfinity.
5. There’s still no rivalry in sight.
Even with a 20-game schedule, there’s still only six home-and-home series this season and four teams the Terps will play either in College Park or on the road. It always seems like a crapshoot regarding who the Terps will draw from year to year. It certainly makes it almost impossible for Maryland fans to summon the kind of hatred they used to have for Duke, and the strong dislike for North Carolina and Virginia.
A year ago, Maryland faced many of the league’s top teams twice. Given the injuries that robbed Jackson (torn shoulder labrum) and then-junior forward Ivan Bender (torn meniscus) of most of the team’s Big Ten season, it proved to be too daunting a task. This year’s schedule, at least on paper in the middle of August, doesn’t look as hard. Just don’t tell that to Turgeon.
Maryland’s Big Ten regular season schedule (times to be announced at a later date).
Saturday, Dec. 1 vs. Penn State
Thursday, Dec. 6 @ Purdue
Wednesday, Jan. 2 vs. Nebraska
Saturday, Jan. 5 @ Rutgers
Tuesday, Jan. 8 @ Minnesota
Friday, Jan. 11 vs. Indiana
Monday, Jan. 14 vs. Wisconsin
Friday, Jan. 18 @ Ohio State
Monday, Jan. 21 @ Michigan State
Saturday, Jan. 26 Illinois @ Maryland (at Madison Square Garden)
Tuesday, Jan. 29 vs. Northwestern
Friday, Feb. 1 @ Wisconsin
Wednesday, Feb. 6 @ Nebraska
Tuesday, Feb. 12 vs. Purdue
Saturday, Feb. 16 @ Michigan
Tuesday, Feb. 19 @ Iowa
Saturday, Feb. 23 vs. Ohio State
Wednesday, Feb. 27 @ Penn State
Sunday, March 3 vs. Michigan
Friday, March 8 vs. Minnesota