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As NCAA tournament stock drops, Maryland men’s basketball seeks to end five-year drought in Big Ten tournament

The raw emotions were still fresh Sunday for Aaron Wiggins less than an hour after a five-point loss to Penn State on Senior Night that Maryland men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon described as “devastating” several times.

But the junior guard was still confident and delivered a declaration to the people who inevitably would begin to question the team’s late-season surge, which included five straight wins before two close losses.

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“I don’t think the five-game win streak that we had was a fluke,” Wiggins said.

Despite the disappointing end to the regular season, the Terps (15-12, 9-11 Big Ten) can look forward to a quick chance at redemption in a venue that has foiled Maryland teams in recent years. The eighth-seeded Terps will play ninth-seeded Michigan State (15-11, 9-11) in the second round of the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis at 11:30 a.m. Thursday.

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Maryland beat the Spartans at Xfinity Center by 18 in late February, but since dropping to 4-9 in conference play, Michigan State has won five of its past seven, including victories over top-10 teams Ohio State, Illinois and Michigan.

The Terps haven’t won a conference tournament game since the 2015-16 season, the longest current drought in the Big Ten, but Thursday serves as a chance to end that losing streak and build confidence ahead of what they hope will be an NCAA tournament appearance. Selection Sunday is March 14 and the tournament begins with the First Four on March 18.

“I imagine we probably could have won one last year, right?” Turgeon said Wednesday, referring to the coronavirus pandemic forcing the cancellation of the 2020 Big Ten tournament. “I’m not concerned about what’s happened in the past. I’m just concerned about going there and doing the best we can. We’re playing a heck of a team, one of the hottest teams in the country, beat two [projected] one seeds [Illinois, Michigan] and a two seed [Ohio State] here lately. We just need to go there and play well. [There are] really good teams in the Big Ten. It’s hard to win in March. But it’s about this year, not the past.”

And yet, it’s still not lost on returning players what was taken from them a year ago. Monday marked the one-year anniversary of the program’s first Big Ten regular-season title, a celebratory afternoon they envisioned would propel them to a lengthy run in the NCAA tournament. Four days later, the Big Ten canceled its conference tournament, along with all other sports competitions, as the magnitude of COVID-19 began to be understood.

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“It’s crazy how we had everything taken from us within a couple days after the 8th of March last year,” Wiggins said. “Definitely excited to have postseason here and to be able to participate in it. Guys are ready to go and take care of business in Indianapolis.”

When Turgeon was asked if he thought his team had accomplished enough to earn an at-large bid, he said he thought Maryland was “clearly in.”

“I think we’re in, no matter what happens,” he said. “We’re in the best league in the country, we won nine games, beat four Top 25 teams. Beat a [projected] one seed [Illinois] and Purdue could end up being a three or four [seed]. So, do I think we’ve done enough? Absolutely. But I’m not on the [selection] committee. …

“To me, it’s more about the regular season than it is this [conference] tournament to get into the NCAA tournament. We could have went a lot of directions that weren’t great. And we just kept battling, kept fighting, and every time we’d lose, I’d say, ‘Guys, I’m going to figure it out. I’ll make us better. You guys keep working.’ For where we are as a program and the league that we’re in, I feel like we’ve done enough.”

Turgeon said the team plans to stay in Indianapolis through the start of the NCAA tournament, with the entirety of the 68-team field set to play games in sites across the city. And depending on which bracket projections you look at, the five-game winning streak during the final month of the regular season, coupled with its early-season wins over ranked opponents, has already solidified Maryland’s spot in the tournament. An aggregation of over 100 bracket projections by The Bracket Project lists the Terps’ average position as a No. 10 seed.

Regardless, at least one win in the conference tournament would likely make the extended stay leading up to Selection Sunday a little less uneasy.

“Our guys have good attitudes,” Turgeon said. “It’s Michigan State. They’ve been the team in our league for the last four years or five years, I don’t even know how long since we’ve been in the league. … Our guys will be pretty fired up tomorrow at 11:30.”

Big Ten tournament

MARYLAND VS. MICHIGAN STATE

Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis

Thursday, 11:30 a.m.

TV: BTN Radio: 105.7 FM, 1300 AM

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