Maryland hasn't completely locked up an NCAA Tournament berth just yet, but Sunday's win at Rutgers was another major step toward March for the Terrapins.
After a rocky start to the conference season, Mark Turgeon's squad has come alive as the schedule has lightened up a bit. Maryland won its fourth straight game with their 68-59 win at Rutgers on Sunday, bringing their Big Ten record to 8-9, a very respectable number considering how loaded the conference is this year.
The strength of the Big Ten has given Maryland plenty of opportunities for resume-building wins, with Sunday at Rutgers (29th in NET rankings) the Terps' 15th Quad 1 opponent this season — two more than any other team in the country. They've won five of those games, tied for eighth-most in the nation.
More impressively is where those wins have come. Maryland has a reputation as one of the best homecourt teams in college basketball, but four of their five best wins this season have come on the road at Wisconsin (23rd), at Minnesota (61st, but 13-2 at home), at Illinois (4th, and Maryland was without starting guard Eric Ayala) and now at Rutgers.
Sunday's game was probably the only one left on the schedule the Terps could afford to lose, considering their final three games come against schools in the bottom half of the Big Ten, including 5-9 Michigan State, 4-10 Penn State and 3-12 Northwestern. Maryland has yet to lose a Quad 2, 3 or 4 game this season so finishing the year with no bad losses will be an important part of their postseason resume.
Maryland's defense has locked in over the last few games, holding their opponents to just 59.8 points per game in their last four games over the course of eight days. The offense has come alive in that stretch as well with their three highest scoring outputs since December all coming in the last week.
Aaron Wiggins has been leading the charge, looking like an All-Big Ten player in recent weeks, but Sunday's win was emblematic of how the Terps have been forced to play without Anthony Cowan and Jalen Smith this season. They locked in defensive as a unit, stifling Rutgers all game long, and played unselfishly on offense. No bench player scored more than two points against the Scarlet Knights, but every starter finished between 11 and 14 points.
The lone potential negative for the Terps on Sunday came in the form of the injury bug. Senior leader Darryl Morsell twice had to leave the game after injuring his right shoulder, an issue that has bothered him for most of the season. Morsell left in the first half, returning with his shoulder wrapped before the period was over, and left again late in the second half without returning.
Morsell doesn't grab as many headlines as Wiggins and Ayala, but he is arguably the most important player on the team thanks to his defense, leadership and toughness. They may be able to manage the end of the regular season with him playing a more limited role, but this roster can't afford to be without any of their starters in March.
As the season has gone along, Turgeon has shortened his rotation — only eight players saw the court on Sunday, and one of those was former walk-on Reese Mona who provides sturdy defense but isn't a scoring threat. Depth isn't an issue for this team just yet, but they also need their starters to be able to play.
All of a sudden, the Terps look like they are in excellent position to make the NCAA tournament, as long as things don't fall apart for them down the home stretch. More crucially, Maryland is playing (by far) it's best basketball of the season as February winds down, something that has been too rare during the Turgeon era.
This is a program that has typically peaked in January and made the postseason on the backs of their early performances. Now, they are getting hot at the right time.
If they can continue to play elite defense while shooting more consistently, both the ceiling and floor will be a lot higher for this team than most expected. It's already carried them to the point where they probably control their own postseason destiny, and many fans are starting to imagine a less-stressful Selection Sunday.
The work is far from over, as every player and coach will tell you. But with another big win Sunday, Maryland is in its best position yet in 2020-21 to make the NCAA Tournament once again.