- The Washington Times
Monday, February 1, 2021

Mark Turgeon doesn’t want to look ahead, not toward March and all that month implies. The coach doesn’t want to think about the NCAA tournament, because the Maryland basketball team hasn’t shown consistently enough that it belongs in that competition.

So instead, Turgeon and his team have applied a set of metaphorical blinders, focusing on the near-term rather than the end goal.

“And if we do that, it will be proven if we’re locked in and everybody’s on the same page, we can really play with anybody but Michigan,” Turgeon said.

That’s life in the Big Ten this season, a conference that’s stacked almost top to bottom with talented squads. Ten of the 14 teams have been ranked at one time or another this season, and six are currently in the Top 25.

Anyone can beat anyone and any given night, and Maryland’s season so far is a great example of that. But as the final stretch comes with seven games before the calendar turns to the month that must not be named, Maryland has no choice but to focus on each individual day as they come. The competition is too steep to look any further.

“It’s special. It’s deep. It’s exhausting thinking about it,” Turgeon said. “That’s why we just try to lock in and talk one game at a time.”

The Terrapins have won three conference games, and all three have come against ranked opponents on the road: Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota. Maryland had never done that before in program history. But the team’s 3-7 conference record shows the parity present, and Turgeon‘s squad has lost all four home Big Ten games.

Tuesday is a chance to buck that trend, meeting No. 24 Purdue for the second time this season. The Terrapins have grown since that early season matchup, improving defensively even as offensive consistencies remain an issue.

“We’ve seen this year we’re capable of putting good games together,” guard Eric Ayala said. “Just trying to do the recipe for those games that we played well.”

Maryland’s hardly alone in the up-and-down nature of the conference. On Saturday night, for instance, No. 14 Wisconsin played Penn State and No. 21 Minnesota played Purdue. The unranked teams won both of those matchups. No. 4 Michigan leads the conference with an 8-1 record, but that program is on pause until at least Feb. 7 due to a positive test of a new coronavirus strain. No other team has fewer than three losses in the conference, although six teams are above .500 — creating a logjam in the race for the Big Ten regular season title.

The Big Ten could receive as many as 10 bids for the NCAA tournament, depending on how the next month of the season shakes out. KenPom’s rankings list eight teams inside the top 30 in the country.

Maryland is on the border of tournament consideration, sitting at No. 48, according to KenPom, with a 9-8 record. The Terrapins’ marquee wins over ranked foes are giving them a chance, but more consistency in the second half of the league campaign will be decisive.

“If we don’t play almost as well as we can play, we’re not going to win,” Turgeon said. “So we have to play well. I think a lot of teams in our league, if they don’t play well, they’re not going to win. Last year we won some games we didn’t play well. This isn’t last year; this is this year’s team. The league’s even better than it was last year.”

Maryland might receive a boost down the stretch, though. There are no cakewalks in the conference, but after a frightful first 10 games — which featured eight ranked teams — the Terrapins see a slight reprieve.

They face Penn State twice, and Northwestern, Michigan State and Nebraska once (a postponed game against the Cornhuskers from earlier could be rescheduled, too). Those four teams are sandwiched around Maryland at the bottom of the standings.

But then again, even those squads — barring 0-5 Nebraska — have shown they can upset the conference’s upper-echelon teams on any given night. That’s just the way the Big Ten is unfolding.

“We know what we’re capable, and we know we’ve played a lot of the good teams,” Turgeon said. “But there’s no bad teams.”

• Andy Kostka can be reached at akostka@washingtontimes.com.

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC.