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Maryland men’s basketball vs Minnesota preview (Part 2)

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The Terps look to take down the Golden Gophers for the second time this season.

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Minnesota Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

Maryland men’s basketball will play host to Minnesota on Sunday night, a crucial tilt for the Terps with their record sitting at an even .500.

The Terps are coming off two straight losses to Penn State and No. 4 Ohio State, and are on the verge of dropping below that .500 mark for the first time this season. But Sunday’s contest will be just the fourth game out of twelve in Big Ten play in which Maryland will not be playing an opponent ranked at the time, though the Gophers did receive 12 votes in the most recent AP Top 25 poll.

“One thing with us, I don’t care how hard your schedule is,” Turgeon said. “If you’re losing, you lose confidence and you’re not quite sure of yourself. So we’ve really talked about body language, positive energy, being confident — coaches, players, managers, trainers —everybody having that attitude.”

The game tips off at 7 p.m. and will be televised on Fox Sports 1.

What happened last time

Maryland’s last matchup with Minnesota marked the closest semblance toward the development of a team identity for the Terps as they put on their most impressive defensive display of the season to upset the then-No. 17 Golden Gophers at The Barn on Jan. 23.

The Terps came into that road contest with just two conference wins to that point, boasting a 2-6 record in Big Ten play and having just been blown out by No. 7 Michigan by a staggering 24 points. But the team still had marquee wins over Wisconsin and Illinois earlier in the season, leaving the door open for yet another potential road upset.

Maryland wasted no time asserting itself on that night, hounding the Gophers defensively from the opening tip while executing effectively and efficiently on the offensive end.

Led by junior guard Eric Ayala, the Terps sprinted out a 17-3 lead within the game’s opening 10 minutes, forcing their opponent to play from behind all night long.

The Gophers managed to cut the lead down to seven down the stretch of the first half, with its leading scorer in Marcus Carr playing all 20 of the game’s opening minutes to help keep his team’s offense afloat. His 14 points had his team in just a nine point hole going into the half, with Maryland leading 36-27.

However, Minnesota was hamstrung for most of the second half by foul trouble, with its go-to interior presence in Liam Robbins picking up three quick fouls in the first three minutes to keep him on the bench for most of the second frame.

“Robbins got in foul trouble, which was big for us because he’s so important to their team,” head coach Mark Turgeon said.

Without Robbins, Minnesota’s offense fell off a cliff, relying on Carr to carry them on seemingly each trip down the floor. Carr finished with a game-high 25 points on the night, but the Gophers were ultimately held a season-low 49 points on their home floor, allowing Maryland to grind out its third road upset of the season.

“We guarded for 40 minutes,” Turgeon said. “We’ve guarded for 36 [minutes], we’ve guarded for 34 [minutes], we’ve guarded for 30 [minutes], but that game we guarded till the very end.”

What’s happened since

Many believed the team’s upset over Minnesota was a landmark victory for the 2020-21 Terps, having defeated some of the best teams the Big Ten had to offer, all on the road.

But the roller coaster ride that is Maryland basketball continued to experience its ups and downs from that point on, losing a five-point game to No. 10 Wisconsin at home four days afterward. The Terps followed that up with yet another ranked win, defeating No. 24 Purdue at Xfinity Center to reignite hopes for a post-season appearance.

Yet whenever Maryland seems to reach a high this season, it’s been soon followed up with another low. The team dropped its road contest to Penn State in embarrassing fashion, fumbling multiple key opportunities to pull off the win late in game in a 55-50 loss.

Another tough test followed after that, with the team coming up short against No. 4 Ohio State at home in its next game to fall to 10-10 on the season.

For the Gophers, their loss to the Terps was the first of three straight for the team, putting a swift end to their brief stint as ranked team. Minnesota was blown away by Purdue in West Lafayette, Indiana, losing by 19 to the Boilermakers before dropping another road game to Rutgers 76-72 after that.

The team managed to bounce back with a pair of home wins over Nebraska and Purdue, but sit at a similar crossroads in their season as its Sunday night opponent does.

Three Things to Watch

1. It’s make or break time for the Terps. Though Mark Turgeon has stated in the past that his team isn’t thinking about the postseason yet, it knows that its hopes for an NCAA Tournament appearance will significantly diminish with a loss on Sunday night. With seven games remaining on its schedule, only two of them will be against teams in the top of the conference, with Sunday’s game and a Feb. 21 contest against No. 25 Rutgers being those two.

The Terps need to take advantage of those two games, as well as the rest of remaining schedule, if they want to have any kind of chance at convincing the selection committee to include them in the big dance.

The Terps play so far has them barely holding on to the bubble of the NCAA Tournament. They were projected as the “first four in” by ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi prior to playing Ohio State, but they then took a huge drop. Now, Maryland isn’t even in the “first four out,” rather it stands in the “next four out” with just seven game left.

“We know we got to play well, we got to play better than we’ve been playing,” Turgeon said. “We know where we are, we know where we have to get, we know what we have to do, and just hopefully we’re good enough to do it.”

2. How will Maryland approach the condensed schedule? COVID-19 has presented several obstacles and challenges for every team in college basketball this season, with the Terps being particularly afflicted multiple times so far themselves. Due to its postponed Jan. 16 game against Nebraska, the team has scheduled a home back-to-back on Feb. 16 and 17 to recoup the lost game and minimize risk of positive tests between each game.

That means Sunday’s game will be the first of three games in four days for Maryland, which may prevent Turgeon from being able to rely on his starters to play heavy minutes in each game. Keeping his players fresh deep into a season is difficult enough, but managing this upcoming stretch will be a unique challenge for Turgeon to navigate.

“I would say taking care of your body off the court,” senior guard Darryl Morsell said of the team’s approach to the upcoming stretch of games. “Just making sure you got appropriate nutrition, you get enough rest and stuff like that.”

3. Can the Terps pull off the season sweep? Wins in the Big Ten this season have been hard to come by for most teams, and especially so for Maryland. But the Terps will have the opportunity to double-up on a conference opponent Sunday, which would be their first season-sweep of an opponent this season.

“There’s a sense of confidence, but of course we also know that they’re going to be hungry,” senior forward Galin Smith said. “It’s always hard to beat a team twice ... we have to make sure we just execute our game plan and handle our business at home.”

A win also prevents the team from going on another three-game losing streak, which would be brutal to have to endure at this point in the season.

Predictions

Vegas: Maryland -2 (O/U 139.5)

ESPN BPI: Maryland 59.1% chance to win

KenPom: Maryland 70-69 Minnesota (Maryland 56% chance to win)

Me: Maryland 60, Minnesota 56