Maryland senior Jake Layman is optimistic that the team can improve on its 3-point shooting against Kansas. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
Given the fact that the Maryland men's basketball team ended the regular season with four losses in six games, many questioned whether the Terps would reach the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.
Given the way Mark Turgeon's team has played against some of its tougher opponents this season, the fifth-seeded Terps believe they have a decent chance to beat top-seeded Kansas in the semifinals of the South Regional.
Though Kansas (32-4) hasn't lost in nearly two months and is a seven-point favorite to beat Maryland (27-8) on Thursday at the KFC Yum Center — the biggest spread of any of the eight Sweet 16 games — the Terps don't look at themselves as underdogs.
"How can we think about being the underdog, when we had so much hype coming out?" junior forward Robert Carter Jr. said Wednesday. "Guys in this locker room, we've got so much confidence in this team and in each other, we feel that any time we step on the court, we're the dominant team."
Said freshman center Diamond Stone: "We look at ourselves as the No. 1 seed. We look at ourselves as the top team in the country."
Kansas coach Bill Self, whose Jayhawks have won 16 straight games dating to Jan. 25, is not too far off in his assessment of the Terps.
"When you're ranked in the top five for a good portion of the season, at least multiple weeks, that means you have shown everybody that you can play to a No. 1 seed level," Self said. "I think we're playing a team that even though they're seeded fifth, our guys understand they can play to a one seed."
Whether that happens is really anyone's guess, including Turgeon's. Maryland has had a tendency to play to the level of the competition — up or down — and there's no telling when that might happen. It has resulted in more than a few confounding performances and it makes the Terps hard to predict.
"We play well against good teams," said senior forward Jake Layman. "We know how talented teams are out there. Against the UConns and UNCs, we've always played well."
Junior center Damonte Dodd said "it's not a good thing" to play up or down to the competition.
"You always want to play up, play your best," he said. "Knowing that we do play our best against high-ranking teams, that's a good thing."
It's not as if the Terps are coming into their first Sweet 16 appearance in 13 years — and their first matchup with the Jayhawks since Maryland beat Kansas in the NCAA semifinals in 2002 before defeating Indiana for the title — playing their best ball of the season.
In Spokane, Wash., the Terps blew nearly all of their 18-point lead over South Dakota State on Friday before holding on to win, 79-74. Maryland shot 1-for-18 on 3-pointers — an NCAA tournament record for futility by a winning team — and beat Hawaii, 73-60, Sunday on the strength of a defense-induced 19-2 run.
"I don't think we'll shoot that bad again going forward," Layman said. "Guys are confident on this team to be able to make shots. As long as we run our offense and play with confidence, we should be fine."
In Maryland's best performances earlier this season, that usually was the case.
In a down-to-the-wire 89-81 loss at North Carolina on Dec. 1, the Terps shot 50.8 percent (30-for-59) from the field, including 46.2 percent (12-for-26) on 3-pointers. In a 76-66 win over Connecticut before a pro-Huskies crowd at Madison Square Garden a week later, Maryland went just 3-for-14 on 3-pointers.
Lately, it's been Maryland's defense.
In the NCAA tournament, the Terps held South Dakota State to 28.2 percent (9-for-34) shooting in the first half, including 4-for-17 on 3-pointers, then followed up by allowing Hawaii to go just 23-for-70 overall and 4-for-19 on 3-pointers.
Asked if he could see the Terps playing up to the competition on Thursday, considering that it's a team long considered one of the pre-tournament favorites, Turgeon said, "You know we've done that all year. I'm just glad we had that run [against Hawaii]."
Said sophomore Jared Nickens: "We were our worst enemy during the time we lost games."
He conceded that part of their problem might be mental.
"We weren't locked in, we weren't doing what we were supposed do defensively and rebounding," Nickens said. "We focused, we re-energized and we picked it back up. "
Just in time for the NCAA tournament.
This marks the first time in over a month that the Terps have won at least two straight games against high-major competition. Stone said the Terps shouldn't change their approach.
"We have to play the same way," said Stone, who, like a few of his teammates, could be playing in his last college game. "Those teams are great teams and Kansas is a great program, but we're a great program, too. It should be a fun game."