It's always a good day when you wake up tied for second place in the conference. Sure, it's a five-way tie and only three games have been played, but still: it's second place. If you had asked me before the year, "Would you like to be tied with North Carolina in the conference standings after three games?" ... well, I probably would've answered "Yes."
So enjoy it while you can. Unfortunately, I'm not sure how much longer it'll last.
We knew coming into the year that Maryland had one of the most difficult conference schedules in the ACC, a side effect of uneven scheduling. They have six total games against the three runaway best teams in the conference, UNC, Duke, and Virginia (compared to, say, N.C. State, who play only four games against that trio). Conversely, there's only game against Boston College, one game against 0-3 Virginia Tech, and one game against Clemson. So this joy was never likely to last very long.
And it's not like the Terrapins have to wait much time to get into the thick of things: Maryland trips to Florida State on Tuesday; then goes to Philly to play at Temple; and then hosts #8 Duke. A brief respite with a home game against Virginia Tech leads into a road game at Miami, a home game against North Carolina, a trip to Clemson, and then a trip to Duke.
The next month or so is going to be really interesting. And it starts right this week, during which time Maryland will play three top-50 RPI opponents.
If you're looking to map out a route for the Terrapins to find themselves on the NCAA Tournament bubble, it's there. It's not easy, but it's there. A win over Temple, then another six ACC wins to get to 8-8 in the conference, should put them at least in the conversation, if not in the tournament itself. Beating Temple is easier said than done, mind you, but they did just lose double-digit games to Dayton and Richmond, and anything can happen on any given, uh, Saturday.
The trickier part might be finding those eight ACC wins: let's be generous and say Maryland has a good shot with Virginia Tech, @Clemson, Boston College, and Miami. And let's throw out the four against Duke and UNC. That means Maryland would need to win two of @FSU, @Miami, @Virginia, @GT, and home against Virginia.
Can it be done? Sure. Every one of those teams has lost to a team worse than Maryland, so it's not out of the realm of imagination. And hey, Maryland just beat GT by 11, so there's a possible one right there. But it's not exactly the type of path I'd like to see.
The most important games are probably the earliest: the Florida State road trip might be one of the more winnable games in that stretch, given FSU's proclivity for head-scratching performances. And of course Temple might be a must-win, or is at least close to it.
For the record, I still think it's unlikely that Maryland finds itself even on the bubble, and ridiculously unlikely that they end up in the tournament. The offense isn't near smooth enough, and there are going to be growing pains with guys like Alex Len and Nick Faust. This is an NIT team at its core, I think.
But the fact that we're legitimately discussing a not-entirely-impossible path to the NCAA Tournament in mid-January three games into the ACC slate is a pretty nice development.
Whichever way this goes, we'll at least learn a lot about Maryland in the upcoming weeks. It's possible to get through the non-conference schedule as an enigma, and it's even possible to win a few conference games without people being able to peg you. But once the toughest games start hitting hard, real colors usually show. Is Sean Mosley a real #2 scorer? Can Faust continue his progression? Will Terrell Stoglin score 20 a game in the ACC?
Buckle up. We're about to find out.