They’ve been here before, preparing to turn the corner. North Carolina State and Duke come to mind. Maryland followed up both thrilling wins with dreadful letdowns, first in Chapel Hill and then in Boston. So what makes this latest roller-coaster ride a straight shot without the typical twists and turns?
“I judge it differently than you guys judge it,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “I can tell by the way we’re playing, the way we’re executing, the way we’re defending. I was really pleased by the way we played at Virginia. Looked at it as a step forward, especially a tough road game. It’s late in the year. Are we going to play perfect tomorrow night? No. But hopefully we play well, well enough to get a ‘W.’ I feel like we’re growing up. I really do.”
After the heartbreak of losing to North Carolina in the ACC tournament semifinals, all that remains for the Terrapins is business. Seventh-seeded Niagara comes to College Park for the NIT’s first round on Tuesday evening. Three straight wins means a trip to Madison Square Garden for the semifinals and finals. An older team more accustomed to NCAA tournament berths might view the NIT as a consolation prize. The Terps are too. Except it’s also an opportunity.
“I think we all knew when we lost to North Carolina that we weren’t going to make the NCAA tournament,” Turgeon said. “A lot of tears in the locker room. We invested a lot. We took 24 hours to digest it, but it was still in the back of every kid’s mind that our name might pop up, when you see certain names pop up. But it’s kind of hard to get in with an 8-10 conference record. We knew we had to play well. We digested it, and I think our guys are real excited. A young team. A chance to keep playing. They feel good about the way we’re playing right now.”
Now, promising progress must manifest in results. The Terps hope that their past six games, beginning after that disaster against Georgia Tech in Atlanta and ending with wins over Duke and Wake Forest at Greensboro Coliseum, means they’ve finally found consistency, even if that stretch included two losses to the Tar Heels and a 17-point collapse at Virginia. “We’re playing our best basketball” has become a recurring mantra around Comcast Center these days.
“Well we’re still playing for something,” sophomore Dez Wells said. “With that being said, we’re the same team. Just tell them we’re moving forward, we’re moving in the right direction. I’m just excited to have an opportunity to play for the NIT championship.”
With such a young team, Turgeon said, any postseason berth is exciting. A third-straight NIT appearance with Wichita State in 2005 was not. But the next season, the Shockers reached the Sweet Sixteen.
“Where we are right now,” Turgeon said, “This is a huge building block for us.”
From the devastation of Virginia to the euphoria of Duke to finally embracing a less-than-ideal fate, Maryland has certainly had its emotions toyed with over the past week. More than anything else, Turgeon is worried about his team’s mental and physical fatigue, given the beating both states took in Greensboro. But these Terps are loose and confident, still rejuvenated and feeling “lucky to be playing.”
“We played really well in the ACC tournament, but maybe our last four games of the regular season we turned it around and played a lot better as a team,” point guard Pe’Shon Howard said. “We just want to keep improving. People say we go up and down, and we want to be consistent.”