By beating No. 12 Purdue on Tuesday night, the No. 24 Maryland Terrapins men’s basketball squad picked up its 10th Big Ten win of the season.
At 10-4 (19-6 overall), the Terrapins are in fourth place in the conference — not only in position for a double bye in the Big Ten Tournament if the season ended today, but also just one game behind first-place Michigan and Michigan State.
Tell freshman guard Eric Ayala any of that, though, and he gives a focused answer that sounds like it came out of a senior’s mouth.
“Personally, I’m gonna be honest, I don’t know nothing about that,” Ayala said. “That 10-4 in the conference, all that. I just go out and play. I just want to win and I know if we win, good things are gonna happen. So if we get a bye or whatever, that’d be a blessing, but we’ve got to go out and play every game no matter who’s in front of us.”
Any Maryland fan can tell you that a March disappointment can nullify whatever transient success is enjoyed during February. But the Terrapins are on pace for one of their best seasons since the year they joined the Big Ten, and with that comes the possibility of a run in the NCAA Tournament.
In his latest “Bracketology” tournament field prediction, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi ranked Maryland with a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament, facing Virginia Commonwealth as the potential No. 11. That bracket was constructed before Maryland upset Purdue, a 3-seed in Lunardi’s eyes.
By all other indications, Maryland is on a path toward a great postseason seed. The Terrapins rank 16th in the country in analyst Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, 21st in RPI and 22nd in the NCAA’s new “NET” analytic.
It’s interesting to check in on where they stand, but it’s also premature with three weeks left in the regular season. Maryland’s next game is Saturday in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the first of two upcoming meetings with a No. 6 Wolverines team that started the year 17-0.
Replicating the dominant second half of Tuesday’s win over Purdue against a tough schedule could be a tall task for a team composed primarily of freshmen and sophomores. But the freshman trio of Ayala, Jalen Smith and Aaron Wiggins give the impression that they’re up for it. In storming back against the Boilermakers, 21 straight Maryland points were scored by those three.
Ayala seemed quietly impressed when informed of that freshman-only run.
“You said 21 straight points by the freshmen? Oh wow,” he said. “That’s tough.”
Ayala credited coach Mark Turgeon for the development of the freshman class, which certainly took its knocks in the first half of the schedule.
“He’s always uplifting and making sure that we’re OK and that we’re confident,” Ayala said. “That’s one thing he preaches, is just stay confident. With a young team, young freshmen, you know, the ups and downs can get to you as a freshman. But Coach Turgeon — and not just Coach Turgeon, our whole coaching staff — they do a great job of keeping us uplifted and making sure we’re confident.”
“We’ve come a long ways,” Turgeon said. “They’re young guys, but they have a lot of experience now. They just keep getting better.”
Under Turgeon, the Terrapins are a remarkably poor 0-18 in road games against Top 25 teams. They’ll get a chance to break that particular losing streak Saturday at Michigan.
Beating elite-level teams away from home? That’s also key for success in March.
• Adam Zielonka can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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