It has been quieter this year. No new recruit everyone knew was going to the NBA after one season. No controversial transfer from Duke. No top-five ranking early in the season.
Maryland, following its year of hype, has spent the season likely wrapping junior Melo Trimble’s career, developing the next wave of players like Justin Jackson and Kevin Huerter, plus trying to make up for the loss of center Michal Cekovsky. In doing so, it launched to a 20-2 start, the best in school history. It arrives at the Big Ten Tournament as the No. 3 seed, not quite an upstart, but also a team that was not expected to be lingering at the top of the conference again.
The Terrapins were projected to finish sixth in the preseason media poll. Trimble and the freshmen — three of which ended up starting — pulled them past that spot and into a double-bye at the tournament in Verizon Center. Maryland does not play until approximately 9 p.m. on Friday, almost a week after the regular season ended.
“The layoff’s much needed,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said in a conference call this week. “I’m thankful we don’t play until Friday. It’s a long season. We played a lot down the stretch — four in 10 days. I was getting after them pretty hard in practice.”
The long break allows the Terrapins to reset after the close of the season was a struggle. Since becoming 20-2 on Jan. 31, Maryland is 4-5.
One win came from Trimble’s 3-pointer with 1.1 seconds to play against Michigan State in the final regular season game. Getting there was a grind since the end of conference play has eliminated any tricks or wrinkles that would be new to opponents.
“There’s no secrets this time of year,” Turgeon said. “I call a play, I think Michigan State knew exactly what we’re running every time. Just sitting on it. It’s been that way almost every game here down the stretch.”
One loss was one-point defeat against top-seeded Purdue to move Maryland out of first place in the conference and snap a seven-game winning streak.
Maryland didn’t know its opponent until late Thursday night. Northwestern, a six seed vying for its first NCAA Tournament berth in school history, won 83-61 over No. 14 Rutgers, which upset No. 11 Ohio State in the tournament’s opening round Wednesday night. The Terrapins defeated Northwestern 74-64 on Feb. 15. If Maryland wins, it moves to Saturday afternoon and, if the seeds hold, would play Wisconsin.
That the tournament is in the District has caused numerous eye rolls among the Big Ten anchor schools. However, conference commissioner Jim Delany had assured Rutgers and Maryland when both joined the conference in 2014 that the tournament would come East. Next year’s tournament is in New York City.
Turgeon is curious about turnout in the District. He expects Friday night to deliver a solid crowd. Should Maryland advance, the Terrapins coach hopes for even more from the local fans. If the opening rounds are an indication of turnout, Maryland fans should have access to a swarm of tickets. Tickets for Thursday afternoon games were just $6 on the secondary market.
“Us being at home doesn’t guarantee anything, obviously,” Turgeon said.
They at least start the conference tournament with one assurance.
“You’d like to go into the tournament with 24 wins because you know you’re in the NCAA Tournament,” Turgeon said. “That takes a lot of pressure off, right there.”