COLLEGE PARK -- Maryland is in the last category any team wants to be in right now -- those large-conference teams seen as on a downward trajectory heading into the month of March.
After losing four of their last six games, Maryland opens play in the Big Ten tournament on Friday in Indianapolis at 9 p.m. against either Wisconsin or the winner of Rutgers-Nebraska. It’s single-elimination from here on out in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments -- leaving no real room for error -- but it also helps to hit a reset button on a disappointing end to the regular season.
“In the beginning of the year, we was No. 1, No. 2. We was in the top of the rankings and everyone pretty much had respect for us,” sophomore guard Melo Trimble said on Wendesday.
“And I think now that we took a couple [losses] and people just lost respect for us and we’re not in the picture of anything so I think just knowing that and knowing [what] people are saying about us gives us a chip on our shoulder and makes us more hungry and that’s something that we all like.”
Maryland still has arguably the most talented starting five in the country when it puts Trimble, Rasheed Sulaimon, Jake Layman, Robert Carter, Jr., and Diamond Stone on the floor to begin games.
The question has simply been about fit and the adjustment they showed against Illinois -- playing a smaller lineup with Layman at the power forward -- could hold the offensive key in March.
They have the talent to win in March. They, on paper, have the versatility to win in March by either working the ball inside offensively or shooting it from behind the three-point line. According to KenPom, they rank 20th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency which should matter in March.
This should be a team built for tournament success. If there will be a turnaround, it will have to start on Friday.
“We’re looking at [the Big Ten tournament] as a mini version of the NCAA tournament,” Sulaimon said. “Instead of six games, it’s three game and if you lose, you go home. So we’re going to try to use the Big Ten tournament as much as we can as our last preparation for the NCAA tournament and at the same time we’re going to try to win it.”
Maryland is likely on the line between a No. 4 and No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament before playing a game in the Big Ten tournament. A win on Friday should help to solidify them as a No. 4 seed. Among bracket makers, a loss would drain a lot of remaining confidence in this team and a No. 5 seed could be in their future.
A run to the title game, on the other hand, could help get them somewhere in the No. 3 conversation.
The optimist would say that Maryland’s effort against Purdue and in stretches against Indiana would indicate that this is a team that might be one adjustment away from being looking more like the team many expected to see by March when the season began in October.
The pessimist sees those four losses in six games, punctuated by a sub-250 RPI loss to Minnesota.
“We just want to play well. We want to get back to playing really well,” Turgeon said. “We’re playing good, but we know there’s a lot of things that we can do better on the defensive end and just get it rolling at the right time.
“Whether we’re an underdog or a favorite this time of year, it really doesn’t matter. It’s just a number in front of your name now and everybody we play going forward is a heck of a basketball team.”