Maryland men’s basketball had another opportunity to make its mark in the Big Ten by picking up its first win of the season in league play. Instead, it lost another close battle to No. 23 Wisconsin, 70-69.
Maryland trailed by as many as 21 in the first half but showed no sign of quitting. They battled back to head into halftime down by seven. The Terps even took a lead at one point in the second half with the game neck-and-neck until the final buzzer.
While senior guard Eric Ayala did whatever possible to give his team a boost, including 19 second-half points and the last basket of the evening that cut the deficit to one, it wasn't enough.
The Terps' comeback efforts fell short as they dropped their third straight game. Maryland moves to 0-4 in the Big Ten and 8-7 on the season.
Let’s get to the takeaways.
Maryland’s postseason hopes feel out of reach.
When Mark Turgeon resigned in November after a disappointing start to the season, it was going to be a tough task to recalibrate and make a push towards the NCAA Tournament. However, in just the second game under interim head coach Danny Manning, Maryland upset then-No. 20 Florida at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
There was a belief within the program, and on the outside, that this team was still good enough to compete in its conference and make the tournament. That momentum that was built from the Florida win didn't carry Maryland very far as they went on a two-week break without a game over the holidays. Now, Maryland has dropped its third straight game and moved to 0-4 in its conference for the first time this century.
Maryland has the talent to compete with many teams in the Big Ten. But whether it's the slow starts, an inability to shut down other teams' stars or struggling to close out games, Maryland has not been able to pile up wins in a difficult conference. Maryland’s schedule is only going to get harder with conference-only matchups the rest of the way and the Terps did not build a promising nonconference resume. It would be a miraculous and improbable effort for Maryland to completely turn its season around, string together wins in the Big Ten and make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large bid.
Maryland did get off to a slow start last season and made a late push to end up as a 10-seed in the tournament, but the Terps were dealing with many different circumstances.
For a team that came into the season ranked as a top-25 team with a buzz that the combination of transfers and returners could propel this team to a deep March run, it’s hard to fathom that the season is a lost cause and has officially turned into a transition year.
With Turgeon gone, Maryland fans' focus has completely shifted to next season and what the team will look like next season. One thing is becoming more apparent as the season drags on: it will be an entirely different staff, and mostly new players, that try to turn the program around next season.
Maryland’s games have a clear pattern.
Stop me if you've heard this before: Maryland gets off to a slow start and finds itself trailing by double digits only to go on a big run and crawl its way back in the game. From there, Maryland comes up just short against a quality opponent.
Well, that was the story once again on Sunday night at home in a one-point loss to Wisconsin. Maryland also trailed by double digits early but went on a run to make it a close game in the second half in both of its losses last week to Iowa and Illinois on the road.
It was even the case against lesser nonconference opponents in Lehigh and Brown two weeks ago. While they didn’t trail by double digits, they were plagued by slow starts in those two games and put together dominant second halves to coast to wins.
The Terps trailed by as many as 21 against Wisconsin, but refused to quit, heading into halftime with a seven-point deficit thanks to a 15-point run in the first half. It is promising that in such a difficult season and through rough stretches, Maryland won't give in and counters any punch thrown its way, no matter how lethal.
“I don't like it when you give up an early lead like we did tonight,” Manning said. “But we’ve shown we have the wherewithal to continue to find a way to crawl, fight and scratch and get back into the ball game.”
The Terps even took the lead in the second half and went down the wire against a Badger team off to a tremendous start to the season. However, it once again failed to close the game and end up on the victorious side.
While Maryland might be close to pulling out these wins, this pattern is becoming all too familiar for the Terps. The slow starts that force a big push and the inability to get stops and scores in the final push need to be fixed sooner than later for Manning’s group.
The Terps fail to close out another tight game.
Maryland and Wisconsin were tied at 57 with under five minutes to go. Wisconsin’s Steven Crowl knocked down a three to give the Badgers a three-point lead, one it never relinquished. Maryland failed to find the late-game run or crucial basket that could put them on top, something it has struggled with all season, particularly in conference play.
After the loss to Illinois last Thursday, Manning talked about how his teams are close to winning and are clearly competing with good teams in the conference, but they have failed to close out games, which is the next step.
Well, Maryland failed to take the next step once again, losing another tight game to a top team in the Big Ten.
The opportunities are there for Maryland to pull ahead late in the games, but whether it’s an ill-advised shot or a defensive mishap, this iteration of Maryland basketball has failed to win close games.
Late in games, it’s evident the Terps rely more on hero ball, which sometimes leads to late-game heroics, but more often than not leads to stagnant offense, bad shots and turnovers. The clock is ticking on Maryland’s chance to figure this out and start closing out games at a higher level.
“No moral victories,” Manning said. “But to play the way we did after being down 21 to one of the better teams in the country, I feel like we’re close to turning the corner.”
The Terps will have another opportunity on Wednesday at Northwestern, a team they lost to earlier this season at home.