Rebounding from Duke, Terps' schedule softens up at crucial juncture

USA TODAY Sports

Terps enter the second phase of their ACC season with a much easier road ahead.

Regardless of your opinion of Maryland's roster, Mark Turgeon, or the Terrapins' performance this season, to the good or to the bad, there's one objective, indisputable fact about the season as it stands: the Terps are a team very much on the bubble.

They seemed firmly and safely in the field before ACC play started, but a 3-4 start, with losses to the top-end of the conference, mostly on the road (well, and a potentially bad home loss to Florida State, who since got taken to the woodshed by Virginia). That's put them in a precarious position when it comes to the tourney, with a lot of wins, a borderline resumé, and a low strength of schedule, a formula that sometimes works (ask Clemson) and sometimes doesn't (ask Virginia Tech). Jerry Palm, in his most recent update, has them as one of the last teams in; other, more recent projections are split, with some considering Maryland just able to sneak in and others painting them as one of the last teams out.

Now, it's far too early for bracketology to carry any weight, at least when it comes to specifics. But the general idea is clear: Maryland, through the first seven games of the ACC schedule, is a bubble team right now. And it's hard to argue otherwise.

The good news? Their schedule is at a turning point, and about to get a lot easier. The bad news? There aren't a lot of opportunities to get quality wins down that stretch.

When you look at Maryland's conference schedule, it makes sense to see it in phases. One of the things that's been undersold is how actually just how tough the start was, which probably had an even bigger effect than usual given the Terps' poor non-con slate. Maryland's first seven conference opponents had an average KenPom rating of 68, a number dragged drastically higher by Virginia Tech. If you exclude the Hokies, the last six games have seen opponents with an average rank of 52 - and, crucially for a young team, the toughest three of those opponents came on the road. If that was the first phase, it was clearly the toughest.

But Maryland's past that now, and the next juncture is significantly lighter. The next four opponents - Florida State, Wake Forest, Virginia Tech, and Virginia - have an average rank of 108, and even that is exaggerated by KenPom's overrating of Virginia (remember, KP overvalues efficient slow-it-down teams). Probably the toughest game of those four, against Virginia, will be played in the Comcast Center. The two road games, at Florida State and Virginia Tech, are both supremely winnable, and in the case of Virginia Tech, the Terrapins should be favored despite the trip.

Thing is, there's a lot we don't know about Maryland right now. We know that they're young, that they're talented but not inordinately talented. We know that their offense is inconsistent and their defense is usually stellar. We know they're young and lacking a point guard, but improving. But we don't know just how good the team as a whole is, with all the pieces put together. That being the case, they could go 2-2 during that stretch and I wouldn't be floored; 4-0 would be equally unsurprising. Splitting the games might end their tournament hopes, given the weakness of the ACC and their schedule in particular, especially when you realize what that tells you about them as a team; going 3-1 would keep their hopes alive, and a 4-0 stretch would probably keep them on the good side of the bubble.

After that stretch comes a revenge match at home against Duke, which should be a closer affair, if still an unlikely win. But then there's another relatively soft four games: at Boston College, home against Clemson, and two trips to Georgia Tech and Wake Forest. Once again, there's a decent chance at 4-0 in that stretch, and anything below 3-1 would be something of a disappointment.

All in all, over the next nine games, the Terrapins have eight that would unquestionably be defined as winnable, with most of those games they should be favored in. We talk a lot about "resumé building wins" - those games against the likes of N.C. State, Duke, or Miami - but that's really only part of it the process. Wins against teams like Florida State, Georgia Tech, Clemson, Wake Forest, and Virginia build the resumé as well, even if in a quite different manner. These are what raise the RPI as much as those big wins, and paint a deep, well-balanced portrait of Maryland as a quality team. Going something like 7-2 throughout these nine games might seem to be asking a lot of a young team, but tournament teams take advantage of stretches like these. By the end of it, we should know whether or not Maryland is one of those types of teams or not.

And there's not necessarily shame in it, if it proves too much for a young team. After all, we don't know just how good this team is yet, as mentioned before, so expectations should be kept flexible as we learn more about them. But assuming the goal is indeed to make the NCAA Tournament, and it probably should be in the locker room, this is where a big push will have to start.

Unfortunately, there's also really only two opportunities for high-quality wins from here to the end of the year: Duke and North Carolina, both at home. Every other game, while a boost to the win column and RPI, isn't exactly going on any marquees. The Terps have only one such win at this point, N.C. State. To have a truly strong case for the tourney, that's a category they'll probably have to add to before the year's out.

But that's out of the Terps' hands. What matters now is putting together a stretch of wins, because there is quite the opportunity to do just that. The way their non-conference slate will hurt them, they'll need to do some serious damage in the ACC to be an attractive proposition to the committee. Over the next nine games, they'll have a very good chance to do just that.

Perhaps more intriguingly, though, it's also a stretch that should - finally - tell us a lot about exactly where Maryland stands as a team, which is still a little uncertain given how weak that OOC schedule was. One point I've mentioned a few times already, because quite frankly there's no way around it: there's a lot that's uncertain about this team right now. We know they're not one of the ACC's elite this year; we also know they're markedly better than last season, when they were, while not a bottom-feeder, certainly toward the less enviable end of the conference. But are they good enough to challenge for fourth or fifth? Or are they more of a mid-tier kind of team? We can guess at this, given their current performances, but neither assertion's been proven by results just yet.

Over the next several games, for better or for worse, I suspect we'll get our answers.

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