MADISON, WIS. — Nearly two weeks ago, a Big Ten championship seemed out of reach for the Maryland men's basketball team. The Terps had lost two straight games, handing a one-point win to Purdue in the final minute at home and barely showing up three days later in a six-point defeat at Penn State.
The back-to-back losses seemed to erase the swagger from Maryland's 8-1 start in the Big Ten. While still tied with the Boilermakers for second place, the Terps found themselves two games behind a Wisconsin team that seemed to be distancing itself from the rest of the league.
A lot has changed in the past 12 days.
Going into Sunday's game at Kohl Center, No. 23 Maryland (22-4, 10-3 Big Ten) has seemingly regained its momentum with two straight wins, including a 74-64 victory at Northwestern on Wednesday.
After winning eight straight and 17 of 18, No. 11 Wisconsin (21-5, 10-3) has lost two straight, including a 64-58 defeat at Michigan on Thursday that senior guard Bronson Koenig sat out with an injured calf.
Both teams are trying to keep pace with No. 16 Purdue (22-5, 11-3), which has won five straight and eight of nine after Saturday's home win over Michigan State.
While all three teams are still hoping to improve their seeding in the eyes of the NCAA tournament selection committee, the top spot in next month's Big Ten tournament in Washington is also part of the motivation.
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said he has seen improvement since his Terps lost to the Nittany Lions.
"Since the Penn State game, we've really been practicing well and it's continued," Turgeon said Saturday on a teleconference before the team left College Park. "It's the time of year when you want to start practicing well and you want to start playing well. We're looking forward to this opportunity."
Wisconsin senior forward Nigel Hayes said after practice Friday that he has seen a different sense of urgency from opposing teams in the back-to-back defeats to Northwestern at home last Sunday and to Michigan in Ann Arbor.
"We're playing teams right now that are playing for their lives," Hayes said. "They're not necessarily worried about [winning] the Big Ten as much as they are the [NCAA] tournament, which is funny. The last couple of losses we had, these teams played inspired so they can get into the tournament."
Hayes acknowledged that Sunday's game against the Terps will be different.
"With them, they're playing for a Big Ten championship. We're playing for the same thing," Hayes said. "They're ranked. Sometimes when you walk into a building and you're the [higher-]ranked team, or even at home, teams play a little more inspired, play a little bit better than they usually would. That's something that you've got to expect."
The Badgers, who were ranked as high as No. 7 before the Northwestern loss, are still the highest-ranked team the Terps have played this season and only the second top-25 team Maryland has faced. Purdue was ranked 23rd when the Terps, then No. 17, played the Boilermakers on Feb. 4 at Xfinity Center.
Not that the three Big Ten contenders can afford to look too far down the road.
"We've all gotten ahead of ourselves, whether you're a fan or a coach or a player," Purdue coach Matt Painter said Monday. "As a coach, you just can't allow your team to do that. Talking about the top 16 or talking about another team that you're not playing takes your focus away from what's important."
If anything, there should be less pressure on the Terps than on either the Badgers or Boilermakers. Both Wisconsin and Purdue were considered among the preseason favorites to win the league. But Maryland, as happened when Turgeon's team wound up second two years ago, was not.
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas isn't surprised that the Terps are where they are so late in the season.
"They've been so consistent late in games," Bilas said in a telephone interview Thursday. "Most teams have been up and down; when they've had a chance to lose games, they lose more often than Maryland has. Maryland has operated in close games as well as anybody, and that's been impressive.
"It's kind of a little bit like they were two years ago. Some people go, 'Well, geez, they're in a lot of close games.' I think that's a good thing. That's where they live, in pressure situations and they know how to handle themselves. That's a really good attribute."
Big Ten Network analyst Stephen Bardo said he had an inkling of what kind of team the Terps were going to be after talking with Turgeon at the league's media day in Washington in October.
"He gives it straight with no chaser and he thought they were going to be pretty good," Bardo said in a telephone interview Friday. "He knew within a month of practice that they were going to surprise some people. I think if you ask him right now, they're better than he even anticipated they were going to be."
Asked Saturday if he was surprised by where Maryland is at this stage of the season given its youth, Turgeon said, "I'm surprised and I'm not surprised. These guys just keep doing it. It's amazing. I think if you would have told me before the season we would be what we are, I would have said, 'No way.' But now we're in the middle of it, it's been surprising, but it's been fun. It's been a great group to coach, they keep answering the bell. I think we're getting better, I really do."
Notes: Turgeon said redshirt junior guard Dion Wiley did not make the trip because of ongoing back problems. According to Turgeon, Wiley was given "another injection" Friday to help relieve the injury. "We hope to start working him out on Monday if everything goes smooth this weekend," Turgeon said. … Koenig, who missed the first game of his career Thursday, went through the team's light workout Friday, but still seemed to be favoring his leg because of an injured calf that has kept him out of practice for more than a week. He is listed as "day to day."
Big Ten stretch run
Here's a look at the remaining schedules for Maryland, Wisconsin and Purdue after Sunday:
Feb. 22 vs. Minnesota
Feb. 25 vs. Iowa
Feb. 28 at Rutgers
March 4 or 5 vs. Michigan State
Feb. 23 at Ohio State
Feb. 26 at Michigan State
March 2 vs. Iowa
March 5 vs. Minnesota
Feb. 21 at Penn State
Feb. 25 at Michigan
Feb. 28 vs. Indiana
March 4 or 5 at Northwestern