Two years ago, a Maryland men’s basketball team with three freshmen in its starting lineup won its first five Big Ten road games en route to an 8-1 start in the league and a school-record 20-2 start overall.
A year ago, a more experienced group of Terps won their first road game in overtime at Illinois in early December, yet — thinned by injuries and an inability to finish — didn’t win another road game until closing out the schedule at Northwestern in late February.
Maryland’s lack of road success last season weighed heavily in a disappointing 19-13 record and the Terps missing the NCAA tournament — or any other postseason tournament — for the first time in four years.
On Thursday night at Purdue, a group even younger than the 2016-17 team that tired down the stretch to finish 24-9 with a first-round loss to Xavier in the NCAA tournament will start an even longer trek with the first of 10 road games in the newly expanded Big Ten schedule.
Junior point guard Anthony Cowan Jr., the most experienced player on this year’s Maryland team, said in an interview Wednesday that his role as one of the team’s leaders is “super important” given the hostility the No. 23 Terps might encounter at Mackey Arena.
“They probably have never played in an environment that we’re playing in tomorrow,” Cowan said, alluding to the five freshmen who could play Thursday for the Terps. “I try to prop them up and tell them it’s going to be a crazy atmosphere. You might hear some wild comments, but you’ve just to stay level-headed and just play your game.”
Said coach Mark Turgeon: “We’ll see how we react when we get out there because it’s a whole ’nother animal to get used to.”
Turgeon, whose teams have done reasonably well on the road since joining the Big Ten for the 2014-15 season, said that the biggest concern going into the first road game has been the turnovers the Terps have been making at Xfinity Center the past four games.
“We can’t have 17 or 18 turnovers and expect to win,” said Turgeon, whose Terps committed 17 in Saturday’s 66-59 win over Penn State in the Big Ten opener. “We continue to talk about it, we continue to work on things.
“I do think we’ve played two pretty good defensive teams the last two games had something to do with it. But our decision making — we’ve just got to make easy plays sometimes and not try to hit the home run.”
While Cowan, as well as sophomores Bruno Fernando and Darryl Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph) have played in raucous arenas on the road before, it’s going to be much different for freshmen such as forward Jalen Smith and Aaron Wiggins.
For Smith, the toughest place he had to play while at Mount Saint Joseph was St. Frances.
“It was still an adjustment because I wasn’t used to playing in [front of] that big of a crowd back then,” Smith said. “There’s just a lot of people in your ear yelling and screaming. It gets you ready.”
For Wiggins, playing on the road his last two years in high school at Wesleyan Christian School in High Point, N.C., wasn't that difficult because his team — coached by former Terp and first-year High Point assistant Keith Gatlin — were always the heavy favorites.
“We basically dominated every single game we played,” Wiggins said. “I know college is really different. Every team has a lot of good players and it’s not going to be bad basketball anywhere. We’ve got to make sure whether we’re home or on the road we’ve got to be locked in.”
The Boilermakers, led by Big Ten preseason Player of the Year Carsen Edwards, are going to be trying to stop a two-game losing streak when Maryland visits. The Terps have not won at Mackey Arena since their first year in the league in 2014-15, a stretch of three straight losses.
What helped the Terps two years ago when they had a lot of road success — finishing 6-3 overall — was the way then-junior guard Melo Trimble approached playing away from College Park. He enjoyed silencing the crowd, as he did with a last-second 3-pointer his sophomore year at Wisconsin and with a career-high 32 points as a junior at Northwestern.
There were several times last season when it came down to the final minute, and with the exception of when Fernando’s tip-in forced overtime at Illinois and Cowan carried the Terps in the extra period, Maryland failed to hold leads or make plays at the end. It was clear that Turgeon and his players missed Trimble.
“He’s been gone a couple of years now. I think we have a better team this year than we did last year,” Turgeon said Tuesday. “We’ll see as the season goes on if we can stay healthy. I think this team is going to continue to grow. We are playing five young guys in our top eight, we’ll see how it goes Thursday night.
“I’d like to think our defense and rebounding is better than it was last year. That helps you. We do have an inside presence this year with ‘Stix’ [Smith] and Bruno. That helps you. We’ve shown the ability to get to the foul line. … I think there’s a lot of things we’re doing well that’s conducive to winning on the road. There’s some things we’re not doing well that’s not conducive. I think there’s a lot of things that are pointing in the right direction.”