There are still nearly two months until Selection Sunday, but Maryland men’s basketball is facing a critical juncture at the end of its January schedule that could be the difference between making and not making this year’s NCAA Tournament.
Four of Maryland’s next five games will be at home — the sole exception a road game at No. 3 Purdue, which looks like the class of the Big Ten and the league’s only true national title contender. The home games are: Michigan (Jan. 19), Wisconsin (Jan. 25), Nebraska (Jan. 28) and Indiana (Jan. 31).
No game in the Big Ten is easy, and any team can beat another on any given night. But the opportunity has presented itself for the Terps to pad their resume and head into the final full month of the season on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble.
All four of the teams the Terps will face at home are beatable. Despite a commanding win over Maryland less than a month ago, Michigan doesn’t look like a tournament team to this point. Wisconsin fell out of the rankings after three consecutive losses and Nebraska hasn’t been competitive in its last two. Indiana hasn’t looked the same without Race Thompson — not that the Hoosiers were living up to their preseason billing with him healthy anyway.
It’s incredibly important to avoid losing winnable home games, especially when road wins have seemed impossible to come by, as has been the case with Maryland in conference play. It is 0-4 against Big Ten foes away from College Park, suffering through lengthy scoring droughts that doomed it in all four games. At home, though, the Terps are 2-0 in the conference, beating Illinois and Ohio State, both of which were ranked at the time.
More likely than not, Maryland isn’t going to be playing postseason basketball if it can’t get at least a win (or a few) on the road by season’s end. But unless a switch magically flips — and we’ve made it to the point in the season where that is becoming unlikely — those road victories won’t be numerous. Out of the team’s six remaining road contests, Feb. 4 at Minnesota and Feb. 19 at Nebraska are the only two that KenPom.com projects as wins.
What that means is that the Terps’ NCAA Tournament fate is probably going to come down to whether or not they can defend their home court. That’s what makes this upcoming stretch so important: taking on too many losses this early leads to a hole too big to dig out of. Given the caliber of teams they’re about to face and how unconvincing they’ve been at arenas not named XFINITY Center, the Terps won’t be able to punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament with a strong homestand, but they’re facing a massive uphill climb if it goes poorly.
“I think home games are going to be really, really important,” head coach Kevin Willard said. “... I think we played pretty well at home. The crowds have been great. I think they’ve given us a really good boost in our first two conference games, so I think you know, get through this stretch where we’ve kind of been on the road. We’ve got to try to make sure we come home and we take care of business at home.”
Since Maryland joined the conference, only five teams have made the NCAA Tournament with a losing record in Big Ten play. Four of those finished 9-11 — including Maryland in 2020-21 — and the only one to finish 8-12 and qualify was Ohio State in 2018-19. Using 9-11 as a benchmark, the Terps would have to go 7-7 in their last 14 games to have a better-than-minimal chance at qualifying.
Assuming Maryland loses to Purdue, a 3-1 record in those four home games means having to go 4-5 in February and early March — KenPom projects Maryland to go 5-4 in that stretch. Go 1-3 or worse in those games, and now they’re looking at having to avoid any missteps and knocking off a team they’re not supposed to.
Maryland currently ranks No. 52 in the NET — a metric the selection committee uses to aid its decision-making — probably not good enough to keep fans’ heart rates low if the Selection Show was to arrive seven weeks early. Maryland was most recently projected as an 11 seed by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm and a 10 seed by FOX Sports’ Michael DeCourcy. To put it plainly: at this point in the season, the Terps are right on the edge of the tournament bubble and can’t afford to miss opportunities if they’re going to go dancing. It won’t be enough to take some losses and hope the other bubble teams do too; the margin of error moving forward is too slim.
Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, Maryland has had four new head coaches take over (Lefty Driesell’s last season was in 1985-86). Bob Wade made the tournament in his second season, although the other two of his three in College Park were some of the worst in program history. It took Gary Williams until his fifth season to qualify and Mark Turgeon until his fourth.
Even in the era of instantly-eligible transfers, Willard didn’t have a true opportunity to build his first team as Maryland’s head coach. The results on the court will more than likely not be as strong an indicator of future results as recruiting and play style will, and a failure to qualify for the NCAA Tournament wouldn’t be massively surprising for a team picked to finish 10th in the Big Ten in the league’s preseason poll.
Still, it would be a welcomed sight for Maryland fans to see their team back in the bracket after a messy 2021-22 season that ended with the Terps on the outside looking in. The home stretch of January could prove to be a harbinger of whether or not that possibility will be realized.