For Maryland men’s basketball, Big Ten tournament is a chance for a fresh start: ‘We can compete with anyone in this league’

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Maryland men’s basketball senior guard Eric Ayala understands the game-winning baskets, near-impossible comebacks and Cinderella stories that define college hoops in March are not predictable. Those moments just happen.

“I mean, you think about that as a kid, but as I’ve played in college basketball, those moments take you versus taking them,” said Ayala, who was named honorable mention All-Big Ten on Tuesday. “They creep up on you. You never really know when it’s going to happen. You just find yourself in the middle of it.”


When the No. 10 seed Terps go to Indianapolis to play No. 7 seed Michigan State on Thursday in the second round of the Big Ten tournament at Gainbridge Fieldhouse, it will be essential for Ayala’s team to have one of those moments. Not only will Maryland be fighting to keep its season alive, but the Terps (15-16, 7-13 Big Ten) will need a magical run to avoid the program’s first losing season in 29 years.

“We have to go out and do whatever it takes to extend our season,” said interim coach Danny Manning, who took over Dec. 3 after Mark Turgeon abruptly stepped down following 10-plus seasons. “It’s one game at a time, and that’s the beauty of March.”


Maryland is filled with optimism heading into the tournament, and it’s understandable. The Terps closed out the regular season winning four of their last six games. Even though Maryland lost to Michigan State in Sunday’s regular-season finale, Manning said playing a team back-to-back makes it easier to prepare.

“It’s a lot fresher, and the guys know what happened,” Manning said two days after losing 77-67 to the Spartans. “It’s just a matter of understanding what hurt us, whether it was self-inflicted or whether Michigan State brought that type of pain to us, and make adjustments from there.”

For Maryland, a Cinderella run doesn’t seem impossible. The Spartans (20-11, 11-9) have lost five of their last seven games and have had trouble putting the Terps away. Maryland only lost the first meeting by two points, 65-63, last month. And if it wasn’t for Maryland falling into an 18-1 deficit in the first half, the result could’ve been different Sunday as the Terps outscored the Spartans by 10 points in the second half.

If Maryland upsets Michigan State, it will play No. 2 seed Wisconsin (24-6, 15-5) Friday night. Maryland lost to the Badgers, 70-69, on Jan. 9 in a game that featured one of the team’s trademark slow starts. However, Badgers sophomore guard and Big Ten Player of the Year Johnny Davis suffered a lower-body injury in a loss to Nebraska on Sunday, raising concerns about his availability.

Manning said last week that victories over Ohio State, Illinois and Rutgers and even the close losses to Purdue and Wisconsin are signs that the Terps can compete with the best.

“There’s not one team that we’ve played this year that we don’t feel we’re capable of beating them,” he said. “A lot of times it’s not the desired outcome we want, but we’ve put ourselves in situations to know that we can compete with anyone in this league.”

If Maryland wants to make a run similar to what Georgetown did last season — when the eighth-seeded Hoyas won four straight games to win the Big East championship and secure a surprise NCAA tournament berth — the Terps will need Ayala and graduate transfer Fatts Russell, a fellow All-Big Ten honorable mention, to play at a high level. Both players are averaging around 14 points per game this season, and Maryland has proven to be a legitimate threat when its backcourt duo gets going.

But more importantly, Maryland will have to avoid slow starts. In both losses to the Spartans, the Terps fell into a double-digit deficit in the first half.


“Getting out to a faster start will help us out a lot,” Ayala said. “I think having a great first half will give us a better chance of winning this game.”

Ayala views the Big Ten tournament as a fresh start. The event is a way for him to put aside the previous 31 games while refocusing on his preseason goals. When he watched Chattanooga’s David Jean-Baptiste launch a 30-foot buzzer-beater to win the Southern Conference championship Monday night, he was reminded about how March is filled with endless possibilities.

“You can never predict what’s going to happen over the course of a game,” Ayala said. “Like I said, those moments take you. You don’t pick them.”



Gainbridge Fieldhouse, Indianapolis


Thursday, 6:30 p.m.

TV: Big Ten Network Radio: 105.7 FM