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An overachieving Maryland basketball team leads the Big Ten

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The wins haven’t been simple, but the Terps are off to a surprisingly good start.

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Maryland basketball sits atop the Big Ten conference with a 4-1 record halfway through January. Whether it’s a testament to weaker-than-expected competition or better-than-expected freshman guards, the Terps have been surprisingly good to open up the season.

The Terrapins were expected to undergo a rebuilding year, grow a trio of promising but not-yet-ready freshmen and figure out life in a post-Melo Trimble world should he choose to leave school. Instead they sit 16-2, and save for a late-game collapse to Nebraska could be undefeated in conference play. Eyes aren’t on the future; they’re on the now.

It’s been far from a dominant display. Maryland skated by non-conference play with one-possession wins almost every week, and aside from a 25-point blowout against Illinois it’s been much of the same since. But this Terps team was supposed to underwhelm. They were supposed to be on the losing end of close games more so than not. That’s where expectations were set.

Beginning the season ranked no. 25 in the country was a bit of a stretch and everyone knew it. Voters had no clue where to place a Trimble-led team filled with lower-profile names; the back end of the rankings was a safe spot. After the first week of play Maryland dropped from the top-25, but three and a half months later they’re set to return — and the team’s earned it.

The Terps may not have their signature win just yet, but own four over KenPom top-50 opponents, including Michigan on the road. Their defense ranks 37th in the nation on KenPom, just five spots below where their “super team” finished a year ago at almost the same rating. The team is getting to the free throw line at the 32nd-best rate in the country, and opposing teams are shooting the 36th-lowest effective field goal percentage. The Terps may not be National Championship material, but they’re far from rebuilding. That’s reason to celebrate alone.

Somehow, coach Mark Turgeon has accomplished an identical record 18 games through this season as he did last year, despite the talent discrepancy and, more importantly, the injuries. The Terps have played without a center multiple times, as Damonte Dodd and Michal Cekovsky have missed large chunks of time to injury. Still, the team’s defensive numbers have hardly wavered.

Sure, Maryland hasn’t played the most difficult schedule. KenPom ranks the Terps’ strength of schedule as just the 85th-toughest in the nation. Some blame could be shared on Turgeon’s soft scheduling in November and December. But the Terps escaped nearly unharmed from it and have passed their two biggest tasks so far in conference play. There’s a number of ranked opponents left for the team to add to its resume.

It’s early and things can change, but this young and inexperienced Maryland team is overachieving much like the one two years before it. It’s not always the easiest basketball to watch, but it’s exciting and unpredictable. A different player breaks out behind Trimble every week.

It’s clear there’s an abundance of budding talent on Turgeon’s roster — the perfect kind of college basketball talent that isn’t yet close to its peak and should be expected to hang around College Park awhile longer.

This might not be the year for Maryland to make a run, but with Dodd and L.G. Gill as the only departing seniors, this team could be setting itself up for something great.

But for now, let’s let the young core overachieve with no pressures or expectations weighing it down. The season is off to a roaring start for the Maryland Terrapins.