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Halfway through Big Ten play, Maryland men’s basketball is striving for consistency

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Sitting on the NCAA Tournament bubble with nine conference games remaining, it’s make or break time for the Terps.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 27 Wisconsin at Maryland Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After his team’s loss to then-No. 14 Wisconsin last week, head coach Mark Turgeon knew that Maryland men’s basketball was missing consistency. He told the Terps they needed to change their mentality coming into home games, emphasizing the importance of playing with the same effort they displayed in their three upsets over ranked opponents on the road.

Whether it was missing assignments and boxouts on defense, or lack of ball movement that resulted in poor shot selection, Maryland didn’t play with the same energy it consistently showed in each of its stunner victories.

The Terps trailed the Badgers by 18 at halftime, and though Turgeon admitted after that the game was over at that point, Maryland still had a chance after crawling back to bring the game within three in the second half. But that would never come to fruition as Wisconsin capitalized on the team’s every mistake.

Maryland is determined to not let that happen against No. 24 Purdue Tuesday night, hoping to show that the road upsets weren’t a fluke, rather that it can play at a similar level each game.

“I think we all know that Maryland basketball needs to improve on being more consistent,” senior guard Darryl Morsell said. “...every possession in every game matters.”

Those possessions have especially mattered in the Terps’ slate thus far. Four of Maryland’s first 10 conference games were against teams in the top 10 of NET rankings, and seven of those were in the top 30.

The Terps won’t face another top 10 NET team for the rest of the season. And after playing a top 50 team in every single conference game thus far, the Terps will only face such opponents in six out of nine games to end the regular season, starting with Tuesday against Purdue. The three other contests are against Nebraska (167) Michigan State (96) and Northwestern (88).

But numbers and rankings don’t mean much in a Big Ten matchup. Though Michigan has proven itself as the alpha and one of the best teams in the nation with just one loss, for the most part, anyone can win on any given night and upsets are aplenty in the conference. Maryland faces even more of a unique challenge in each contest this season due to its unique roster makeup that doesn’t feature a traditional big man.

“If we don’t play almost as well as we can play [in every game], we’re not going to win,” Turgeon said. “...Last year, we won some games [when] we didn’t play well, but this isn’t last year. This is this year’s team, the league’s even better than it was last year and you just have to play well. So it’s special, it’s deep. You know, it’s exhausting thinking about it. But that’s why we just try to lock in and talk about one game at a time.”

Though the team is following the old adage of taking everything day by day — a concept that seems to apply more than ever in this unusual college basketball season — it’s clear for those on the outside how important this next stretch of games is. Maryland is currently on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament and it’ll need to finish strong to have a chance at dancing.

“We can’t think about March,” Turgeon said Monday. “We’re too inconsistent.”

To be consistent, there has to be a baseline of what the standard should look like. And it took this Maryland team a while to figure out its identity and what it needed to do to win games in the behemoth that is the Big Ten this season.

First, the group had to develop chemistry and learn how to play together after the pandemic wiped away the program’s normal offseason and the chance for new players to integrate. Early on, Turgeon tinkered with starting lineups and rotations as he tried to find the best combination to give his team a chance in the Big Ten.

In playing such brutal competition to start the conference slate, the team’s weaknesses were exposed early and often. The reality quickly set in that it didn’t have the traditional makeup of Turgeon’s previous Maryland teams, a complete turnaround from the the 2019-20 Big Ten co-championship squad headlined by Anthony Cowan Jr. and Jalen Smith.

The 2020-21 Terps don’t have a standout star player or a lethal shooter that can get hot in a sudden and take the team on its back. They don’t have a traditional rotation featuring an experienced point guard and a dominant presence down low. And the talent simply doesn’t match those of the other Big Ten squads which boast some of the top players in the nation.

So, Turgeon and his team had to adjust.

“Everyone’s kind of started to fill into a little role, you know, knowing what it is that we have to do as individuals to help our team win,” junior guard Aaron Wiggins said last week. “And I think we’ve all realized that when we’re a defensive minded team we’ll win games and that we have a better chance of being in games when we’re guarding.”

That defensive identity was key to the Terps’ pulling off road upsets against Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota, then ranked No. 6, No. 12 and No. 17, respectively. Those victories, spurred by the team’s hounding energy from the opening tip, marked the first time in program history that Maryland has knocked off three AP Top 25 opponents on the road in one season.

Of all Maryland teams in recent years, one wouldn’t expect this one to be able to pull off the feat, given all the factors working against it. But after doing so, the success didn’t carry over into the games following, two of which were in College Park, and the team is still without back to back wins in Big Ten play.

The Terps are now entering Tuesday’s game against Purdue with a chip on their shoulder, eager to notch that first conference victory on their home court. But more importantly, they want to prove that they are capable of playing the way they did in road upsets on a night in and night out basis.

“It really just comes down to us being consistent. Coming out alert, ready to play, dialing in on specific details on the other team, and just embracing it, for real,” Morsell said. “Just embracing this challenge of being in this tough conference and just coming every night to compete. I think that’s all we need.”