Terps, Mark Turgeon see opportunity vs. Ohio State in ACC/Big Ten Challenge

December 3, 2013

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This May, Mark Turgeon was sitting at a recruiting event with Pittsburgh Coach Jamie Dixon when the conversation turned to the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Maryland men’s basketball team crushed Northwestern on the road last season during the annual event, so Turgeon fully expected a home game this time around.

“No, you don’t,” Turgeon recalled Dixon saying, and the third-year Maryland coach quickly countered his colleague. But Dixon was firm. “You’re going on the road. You just don’t know it.”

Ten minutes later, Turgeon’s phone rang. The exact matchup wasn’t finalized yet but, indeed, the Terrapins were bound for a second straight road game.

“Yeah,” Turgeon said Tuesday morning, “I was [upset].”

The anger eventually subsided, replaced by perspective about visiting fifth-ranked Ohio State, a perennial top 10 program that has reached four straight Sweet 16s and consecutive Elite Eights. Here was an opportunity to prove, on the national stage in a true road game, how far Maryland has come since Turgeon took over in 2011. As the reasoning went, why pit the Terps against this particular team if the networks and conferences didn’t consider it an enticing matchup?

“It’s good for us,” Turgeon said. “The better teams that we play make us better. This is great for us. This is really going to help us moving forward. I wasn’t happy with it, but I think [North] Carolina’s on the road for the second straight year in the ACC. It happens.”

The Buckeyes recently received a boost in the national rankings, moving from seventh to fifth in the Associated Press poll. They are undefeated through six games, the biggest victory coming at Marquette, but this should be the toughest test for both sides to date.

Buttressed by all-world defender Aaron Craft and a deep rotation of six players averaging at least eight points per game, Ohio State ranks first nationally in adjusted defense according to Kenpom.com and third in effective field goal percentage allowed. Keeping calm against Craft and Shannon Scott, both of whom swipe steals nearly 5 percent of the time, will be key for a Maryland back court that has struggled against pressure this season.

“The team is a team, regardless of how they’re ranked, what they’re ranked, because anybody can be beaten on any given night,” forward Charles Mitchell said. “We just go out there with the mind-set to play Maryland basketball. We’re not focused on where they’re ranked, who they are as a school.”

Except that’s unavoidable, given the program’s pedigree in Columbus. Since 2009-10, Ohio State has averaged more than 30 wins per season and finished either first or tied for first in the Big Ten in three of those years. Given Maryland’s pending Big Ten move, the narrative may focus on Wednesday night as an appetizer for future conference games.

Not in College Park, where the Terps have sprinted to a four-game winning streak that included a Paradise Jam championship in the U.S. Virgin Islands before Thanksgiving. Last month, they lost by just one point to currently unbeaten Connecticut in the season opener, an opportunity squandered.

“I think the statement would be you’re playing a top 10 team on the road that’s arguably, the last four of five years, been one of the best programs in the country,” Turgeon said. “Really, that’s a statement to see where you are. We went down to Paradise Jam, we had to have it, we took care of business, I wouldn’t say we have to have this game, but we need to play well in a big-time environment and act, even without [injured point guard Seth Allen], that we’re much more mature, much further along than we were at this time last year, even though we went to Northwestern and won, this is a whole different animal, a whole different game.”

Turgeon had just one request for next season, after Maryland switches sides for the event.

“We should be at home next year,” he said. “Even though we’re in a different league, we better have a home game.”

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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