The preparation has been planned for months, back over the summer when the flights and hotels were booked. The Maryland men’s basketball team knew the quick turnarounds that awaited during ACC play, so its nonconference schedule was adjusted accordingly. Four games over three days in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Four games in 10 days before Christmas break. Two more in as many days before the calendar turned.
“It’s not easy,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “Lucky for us right now, it’s a weekend. That helps. There’s no school. That helps.”
On Monday evening, another benchmark approaches the Terrapins, when an expected sellout crowd at Petersen Events Center awaits. They won the Paradise Jam in St. Thomas and reeled off consecutive victories over Tulsa and North Carolina Central within 48 hours to close out 2013. But the home-road turnaround presents a different challenge, even more so given that the back end is at a Pittsburgh team ranked 28th in RPI and seventh by analyst Ken Pomeroy.
“What a big opportunity for us,” Turgeon said.
Backed by a three-game winning streak and a rotation rejuvenated by the return of point guard Seth Allen, the Terps have assumed a crisp, unselfish offensive persona backed by sound defense, both of which came to the fore in a 77-61 win over Georgia Tech. But in this true road game – something Maryland has only done twice this season – against a team ranked 11th nationally in defensive efficiency, the changes will face an entirely new test.
“I’d like to think we’re going to be ready to handle it,” Turgeon said. “We finished the season last year a pretty good road team, got better on the road. I know we’re not last year’s team, but we’re starting to play better, handling the ball better, guarding better. There will be times where we’ll really have to handle their pressure. We’re talking about execution with toughness. If we do that, can battle on the boards with them, that’ll give yourself a chance. I think we’re ready.”
In their last road game, against Ohio State, the Terps “rolled over,” as Turgeon put it, and lost by 16. And while Pittsburgh’s non-conference strength of schedule ranks 296th nationally, it boasts a do-it-all guard in Lamar Patterson (17.2 points per game), a muscular front court led by junior Talib Zanna (7.6 rebounds per game) and a deep 10-man rotation that will challenge Maryland’s newfound depth.
Having Allen back has made the Terps entirely different, which allowed Turgeon to spread out minutes and conserve energy against Georgia Tech, knowing that they would be boarding a flight to Pittsburgh less than 48 hours later. During his postgame news conference, he rattled off the minutes like lottery numbers: “30, 22, 19, 24, 29, 15, 20, 26, 15.”
“I was thinking that way throughout the game,” Turgeon said Sunday. “We had a comfortable lead, I felt good, I was subbing that way knowing we’ve got a heck of a tough challenge tomorrow night in a place where they don’t lose a lot of games. Very physical team. I haven’t watched film, but to be down 17-2 [against North Carolina State in the first half] I’m sure they had to expend a lot of energy … Hopefully that helps us.”
The way Saturday’s rout unfolded presented a far easier situation than the alternative, had Maryland found itself in a dogfight with its stars playing upwards of 35 minutes, standard practice in November and December. Now, with Allen consuming 20 minutes since his return, players like Dez Wells, Nick Faust, Jake Layman and Evan Smotrycz won’t have to ease off the throttle. Reserves aren’t far behind.
“Everyone’s playing like 15 or 20 minutes,” Allen said. “It’s not like everybody’s playing 40 minutes. The minutes are spread out. We’ll be fine.”