The Maryland men’s basketball team is technically the underdog against Sweet 16 opponent Kansas on Thursday night. The Terps are a No. 5 seed playing the top-ranked team in the tournament, and they’re getting about 6.5 points in Vegas spreads.
But they don’t care about any of that.
"I don’t really feel like we’re the underdog," junior forward Robert Carter said during Tuesday’s media session, before they flew Wednesday morning to Kentucky. "I feel like we’re one of the best teams in the country playing another team that’s one of the best in the country."
With only 16 squads still fighting, there’s no reason to expect anything else. Not much seemed to separate the top-tier teams over the course of the season, as evidenced by the fluidity of the rankings. So the Jayhawks’ seeding doesn’t hold much significance to the Terps.
"There's no one that's No. 1 now, because any team can get beat," sophomore guard Melo Trimble said. "It's going to be another game. We're not worried about the number in front of the team, just like they're not worried about our number in front of our team."
Kansas is incredibly deep and well-rounded, and has 32 wins under its belt. But Maryland won’t be starstruck. In fact, junior guard Wayne Selden is a former AAU teammate of Jake Layman and Jaylen Brantley (their Boston-based team also included Iowa State’s Georges Niang). Trimble and Frank Mason battled one another multiple times while in high school, as well.
"He plays hard on both ends of the court," Trimble said of the Jayhawk point guard. "He’s a great scorer, and then he’s gonna play really good defense." (Some around Maryland's program expect Jayhawks guard Devonte' Graham to guard Trimble, but Bill Self's decision-making there remains to be seen.)
Of course, the familiarity between certain players has received way less media focus than Mark Turgeon’s ties to Kansas. The Terrapin coach played his college ball in Lawrence from 1983-87, and subsequently served as an assistant through 1992. His players know this, but he hasn’t brought it up this week and doesn’t plan to. He coached against his alma mater six times while at Texas A&M (we’ll ignore his 0-6 record), so this isn’t a new predicament for him. It also doesn’t matter to the players who weren’t alive for any of his Kansas tenure.
"Him going to Kansas isn’t going to help us score any points on the scoreboard on Thursday night," Carter said.
When the ball goes up in Louisville, narratives and storylines will give way to a basketball game. And the Terps like their matchups. They believe Trimble and Rasheed Sulaimon can handle Mason and Graham, even though both were All-Big 12 Defensive Team selections. Layman could see some time on Selden, but Maryland can also go small and throw Jared Nickens at the junior. Carter is expected to check
Turgeon’s former teammate Perry Ellis, a brutal assignment Carter will have to simply do his best with. And as deep as the Jayhawks are, there's no reason not to think Diamond Stone can play with center Landen Lucas.
Maryland was a top-10 team almost all year and outranked Kansas at multiple points. The Terps held their own against the likes of North Carolina and Michigan State, so it’s not like an opponent of this caliber is unprecedented (although beating one would be, at least for this year).
"We feel like we can play with them," Turgeon said. "We’re not just going [to Louisville] to show up. We’re going to win the game. Our guys understand that. They get it."
So don’t waste your time calling the Terps an underdog. They won’t listen.