The long, disheartening wait for the Maryland men’s basketball team has begun. Given how long and disheartening the 2017-18 season has been, it seems only fitting.
A year after waiting for its locked-in NCAA tournament bid for just two days after a quarterfinal loss to Northwestern in the Big Ten tournament, Maryland now has 10 days to wait for a possible NIT bid after losing to Wisconsin in the second round of this year’s tournament at Madison Square Garden.
“I think we’d all rather be playing until Sunday,” said sophomore guard Kevin Huerter, who scored a game-high 20 points in Thursday afternoon’s 59-54 loss to the ninth-seeded Badgers, but missed a critical free throw with 9.2 seconds left that could have helped tie the game.
While the Terps appear to have enough wins for the NIT — 19, including a victory over Division III Catholic — a lot will depend on how many teams from mid-major and smaller conferences that won the league’s regular season title but lost in the conference tournament are extended automatic bids to the 32-team field.
As of last Sunday, a website called NYC Buckets listed Maryland as a third seed in the NIT, which means the Terps would get to host one game at Xfinity Center. It would mark the second time in coach Mark Turgeon’s seven seasons that Maryland would play in the NIT. The Terps reached the semifinals in 2012-13, losing to Iowa at the Garden.
It is not where Maryland (19-13) or its fans want to play after three straight NCAA tournament appearances, including the school’s first Sweet 16 since 2003 two years ago.
But after losing seven of their last 11 games — a late-season nosedive mirroring last year when the Terps went from a school-record 20-2 start to finishing 24-9 — the chance of a fourth straight appearance realistically ended weeks ago.
Bruno Fernando's potential, a lack of development of the remaining members of the 2014 recruiting class and the anger of Terps fans were on display in Maryland's second-round loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament Thursday.
“Last year we knew we’d be in the [NCAA] tournament,” Huerter said. "The second half of our year went downhill pretty quickly. This year we don’t know what’s going to happen. That's why we were hoping to play our way into something. Win a couple of games here, possibly win the whole thing. We didn’t do that.”
Huerter said that Thursday's defeat “hurts more” than the other narrow defeats the Terps endured all season.
“We were looking at this game as a new start to our season and a chance to win games and reverse on the stuff we had faults with all year,” Huerter said in the team’s quiet dressing room. “We got bounced first [game] last year [in the Big Ten tournament], we got bounced first game against this year. It feels the same.”
The feeling in the dressing room was a continuation of a recurring theme for the season, as was the game itself.
“Just how frustrating it is, [Turgeon] knows how frustrated we are,” said sophomore point guard Anthony Cowan Jr., who finished with 16 points. “[Turgeon] just had a great game plan and we just didn’t make the plays we needed to."
What hurt the Terps down the stretch was the number of times they had a chance to tie or take the lead, then missed shots or committed turnovers. After cutting a 33-28 deficit with 17:31 left to two points a little more than two minutes later, it look 11 minutes to finally tie the game at 47.
What also doomed Maryland was the number of offensive rebounds it allowed Wisconsin (15-17) to grab late in the game, particularly when sophomore guard Brevin Pritzl hit a foul-line jumper to put the Badgers ahead 55-53 with 28 seconds to go.
It came after two 3-point shots were retrieved and then led to Wisconsin coach Greg Gard calling timeout to set up Pritzl’s jumper. Huerter was fouled on a short turnaround jumper on Maryland’s next possession, but missed the first free throw before making the second.
“Whether it was a rebound or a missed shot or whatever it was, we just couldn’t get [the lead],” Turgeon said. “It’s kind of the way the year’s gone.”