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Column: The sky isn’t falling for No. 4 Maryland men’s basketball

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Let’s take the first loss of the season into perspective.

Mark Turgeon, Penn State, 2019-20, Maryland basketball Sarah Sopher / Testudo Times

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Entering Tuesday night against Penn State, the 2019-20 Maryland men’s basketball team didn’t know the bitter taste of defeat.

The Terps rolled into Happy Valley with a perfect 10-0 record — though a few of those wins were a couple bounces away from a misstep. They left with their first tally in the loss column this season.

And in today’s era of the sport, that likely disqualifies Maryland from College Football Playoff contention. An early-season loss is often too much to overcome to be one of four teams selected to play for a title.

Oh, wait. This is college basketball. A sport in which no team has gone an entire year undefeated since the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers. And the two most recent teams to post perfect regular seasons — the 2013-14 Wichita State Shockers and the 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats — failed to make the national championship game.

Every team is going to lose at some point. Just look at the presumed best teams in the country so far this year. Then-No. 1 Kentucky lost to Evansville on Nov. 12, then-No. 1 Duke lost to Stephen F. Austin on Nov. 26, and then-No. 1 Louisville lost to Texas Tech Tuesday night. The list goes on and on and on.

In fact, roughly six weeks into the season, only five undefeated teams remain in all of Division I — only two of which are major-conference schools. And don’t be surprised if that number is a firm zero in a month’s time.

Was another poor performance against the Nittany Lions at the Bryce Jordan Center concerning? Sure.

But a loss can be a positive thing for the long-term outlook of a team. Not that it’s necessarily good to lose, but sometimes it may need a reality check to hit the reset button and understand that victories won’t always come easy.

“We have a long ways to go as a team. And sometimes when you keep winning, you don’t realize it. Coaches do,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “But hopefully tonight with this loss, our guys will realize that we have a long ways to go to get where we need to be. And number one is sharing the basketball a lot better than we’re sharing it.”

Sharing the basketball is a reference to the Terps’ 9-to-20 assist-to-turnover ratio against the Nittany Lions, their worst mark of the season. As Turgeon put it, they “wanted to lead the country in dribbling” instead of passing the ball, which led to the poor offensive performance.

“We got to learn from a lot of different mistakes that we had in this game — 20 turnovers is way too much,” senior point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. said. “That’s not going to win many games, so we just got to get better.”

Maryland also got out to yet another slow start, which has been the biggest theme of the season to this point. Like the matchup against Illinois — which was supposed to be the team’s wake-up call after it barely staved off an upset — it faced a double-digit deficit at halftime. This time around, the game was within reach to start, but then the turnovers took over.

Instead of facilitating and swinging the ball to take advantage of Penn State’s defense, Maryland tried to force the issue, leading to takeaways and poor looks. The Terps shot 33.3 percent from the floor Tuesday night, and the numbers were even worse against the Fighting Illini. The team is shooting just 30.8 percent from beyond the arc on the season, which ranks 245th in the nation.

So while the Terps have just the one loss, they’ve had two eye-opening performances in a row, showing how much offensive improvement needs to be made. Defense has made the difference all season, and these last two outings have shown that won’t always be enough.

But with only one game over the next two and a half weeks, they’ll be awarded the chance to get back to the basics without having to worry about playing a game every few days.

“It’s a lot to learn from that game. We got a lot of mistakes, a lot of little stuff that can be corrected,” Eric Ayala said. “We’re looking forward to getting ready to practice. We got a nice stretch where we can just practice and get better.”

And though it didn’t show Tuesday night, this team has made strides, at times looking better than any Turgeon-coached team in his College Park tenure.

Maryland has averaged the fewest turnovers and the best turnover margin in the Turgeon era — even with last night’s performance. The Terps are also playing at a faster tempo than any other year Turgeon has held the reins, and this group seems to have an added toughness and physicality to it, which has helped both defensively and on the offensive glass.

Turgeon has also shown a propensity to mix up the game plan when things aren’t working — he’s often rotated multiple defensive schemes in a single game to throw the opponent off-balance, and he’s not afraid to bench established players who aren’t performing well in a game.

The Terps have shown what they’re capable of when things click from start to finish. That was perfectly evident in the win over Marquette, an 84-63 bashing to claim the Orlando Invitational championship.

In that game, Maryland had a double digit lead just over 10 minutes into the first half, and it wasn’t by accident. The team shot well in all three phases, had a strong edge on the glass, passed the ball effectively and limited turnovers. Darryl Morsell and the defense also held Markus Howard — the nation’s leading scorer entering play — to just six points on 1-of-12 shooting.

The Terps will have until Dec. 19, when they’ll go back on the road to face a talented — but injured — Seton Hall team, to figure out a way back to playing like that.

The loss to Penn State was certainly revealing. It’s now clear the Terps aren’t infallible, and more defeats are likely to come as the year rolls on. But the same could be said for every team in the country, and how Maryland responds to this game matters a lot more than what’s happened so far this year.

“We’re still a really young team. We just got to get back to the books, just get ready to practice whenever we start again,” Cowan said, adding that a loss like this could refocus the team. “It’s still a young season. It’s only the first game we’ve lost. We can’t let it linger — we just gotta just take care of our mistakes now.”