INDIANAPOLIS — Maryland won't be playing for a conference tournament championship, which has to be disappointing for a team pegged in the preseason as one of the country's best.
But despite a tough loss in a grueling Big Ten Tournament semifinal game against Michigan State on Saturday, the Terps feel they learned plenty, feel they accomplished plenty, as the NCAA tournament looms.
"The effort we put out there today, coach and our coaching staff had a great game plan for us and our guys fought hard. Like coach said, one or two plays it might be a different outcome. But it just wasn't meant to be," Maryland guard Rasheed Sulaimon said after the game. "But Michigan State, all credit goes to them. They're one of the best teams in the country, and I think we proved today that playing at a high level and playing with a lot of effort, we can compete at a very high level. So it's heartbreaking. But at the same time, I think we're going to try to bounce back and head into the tournament strong."
Sulaimon and teammate Robert Carter didn't have the look of players who just had their hearts broken. In fact, they sounded confident, an odd emotion to witness after such a slugfest of a loss, but one that showed that the Terps still have their eyes on college basketball's ultimate prize.
"Just like Rasheed just said, (we learned) that we're one of the best teams in the country," Carter said. "We battled. Had a chance to win versus another great team. So we just learned that we're back and we can compete with anybody, and it's going to be a fun NCAA tournament."
Being "back" is a big deal for a team that was supposed to roll through a lot of teams this season. Obviously the Big Ten is one of the toughest conferences around, and no one expected that the Terps wouldn't have their share of defeats. But Maryland's end of the regular season was anything but what was expected. The Terps lost four times in their last six regular-season contests, and that stretch was extended to five losses in their last eight games with a 1-1 showing this weekend in Indy.
Things got away from Maryland during that stretch, as a team that finished in the top three in the conference in defense allowed a lot of points at the end of the year. Four times in the last six games, Maryland allowed at least 80 points to its opponent. That includes 86 points to Nebraska in Friday's Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal win.
Saturday, things were completely different. Maryland locked down a high-powered Michigan State team, holding the Spartans to 28.6-percent shooting and just 23 points in the second half. Denzel Valentine, who still scored 19 points in the game and is one of the top candidates for national player of the year honors, was just 4-for-12 from the field and didn't make his first shot until right before the first-half buzzer. The most impressive job, though, was on Bryn Forbes, who scored just four points. The sharpshooter was 0-for-4 from 3-point range and was locked down to a degree that his own team rarely bothered passing to him, almost seeming like it forget he was on the floor.
Forbes has been dangerous all season long — an All-Big Ten Second Team selection — and without his production, Michigan State was stagnant offensively, making just two baskets the final 11 and a half minutes of the game.
"They have a lot of great players, especially Forbes and Valentine. And we knew for us to stay in the game, we were going to have to limit Forbes' 3s. It means more to them when he makes shots, really gets their bench into it and their team going," Sulaimon said. "And our coaching staff, they came up with an outstanding game plan, and I'm just proud of our guys and how hard we worked. Michigan State is a great team. They run their sets hard. They set a lot of great screens, and we just wheeled through it and just tried to run them off the line and get to his legs. With a good shooter like that, you try to get into his legs. And, fortunately, he didn't light himself on 3 like he did the first game and it gave us a chance."
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Unfortunately for Maryland, it still has some things to clean up, as well. Michigan State's defense was just as good, holding the Terps to just one basket and eight points the final 10 and a half minutes of the game. Melo Trimble, supposed to be one of the best players in America when the season began, exhibited his season-long struggles with his shot in Saturday's game, going just 2-for-15 from the field. Sulaimon was 3-for-10 from the field. Jake Layman was 2-for-8.
The Terps, though, seemed to feel that the offense would be there. After all, Maryland was a top-five scoring team in the Big Ten this season and scored 80 points in 13 of its games, including three times in its last six games. Its 97 points against Nebraska were a Big Ten Tournament record.
In general, Maryland was exuding positivity after its loss Saturday. The expectations for this team have been so high all season long, and though Saturday was another loss, the Terps said that they felt good with what they did in Indy and that this weekend's performance and experience will only help moving onto the Big Dance.
"It's huge. When the expectations are so high and you're 25-8, you've got 25 wins and it's not good enough, sometimes it puts young men in not a good place. So we had a lot of fun this week in practice. We played games. We did a lot of different things just to try to get to relax. 'Hey, regular season is over. Let's go play.' So we did a lot of mind things that really made them better. And we worked a lot on defense. Didn't show up last night (against Nebraska). Showed up today.
"There's no question, coaching staff, players, everybody involved in Maryland basketball feels really good. Feels better than we did coming into this tournament. We wanted momentum. We wanted to beat Michigan State. We couldn't do it today. Maybe if we get them again in a couple weeks, we'll be good enough to beat them, but today we weren't. But we feel good about ourselves."