With three games remaining in its underachieving regular season, Maryland’s NCAA tournament hopes are all but over, barring some miraculous run in the ACC tournament. But the Terrapins have not been far off and this, in a way, has been the reason why the season has been so maddening for their supporters.
In the aftermath of Monday night’s 57-55 loss to No. 4 Syracuse, Maryland’s second straight one-possession defeat against a top 10 opponent, Coach Mark Turgeon said the following, and it might as well have been plastered onto T-shirts and worn as a mantra to explain the year: “I think we’re the better team in this building if we play the way we’re capable of and not turn the ball over the way we did, but we didn’t.”
Ten days ago, the Terps lost a heartbreaker at Duke when forward Charles Mitchell’s hook shot teetered on the rim and bounced away. They were demoralized Monday, too, when guard Nick Faust wasn’t fouled on a hard drive and point guard Seth Allen missed an off-balance leaner at the buzzer. This season, Maryland is 0-6 against ranked teams. Four of those have come by a combined nine points.
“It’s a little frustrating that we keep playing, we’re playing good basketball and we keep coming up short,” said Allen, who scored a game-high 22 points against Syracuse but also committed five turnovers against zero assists. “I don’t really know what to say on that. We’re just going to keep playing our game. I don’t think it’s anything we’re doing wrong. I think we just have to keep playing as hard as we can.”
Except that hasn’t been enough. Not against George Washington, when Maurice Creek swished a step-back jumper with six-tenths of a second remaining. Not at Ohio State, when the Terps collapsed against the pressure applied by their future conference foe, then ranked fifth nationally. Not on Jan. 25 at Comcast Center, when they scored 79 points against No. 20 Pittsburgh and Turgeon afterwards said, “It’s just one of those years.”
He said the exact same thing Monday night, and later tersely added that this season has contained far more close calls than any other in his coaching career. Including that loss to the Panthers, the Terps have unquestionably played better basketball of late. They beat Miami with a precise game plan against its matchup zone, waxed Virginia Tech on the road, whiffed against North Carolina, got revenge against Florida State at home, battled Virginia at John Paul Jones Arena and nearly upset then-No. 8 Duke in hostile territory.
A hypothetical: Say Maryland had beaten Connecticut, George Washington, Duke and Syracuse. Suddenly, they are 4-5 against the RPI top 50 with one loss outside the RPI top 100 and a strong strength of schedule. That would be enough to place them into the NCAA tournament.
Another hypothetical: Say Mitchell’s shot had fallen against Duke and Faust had drawn a foul, sinking two free throws to beat the Orange. Then the Terps are probably on the cusp of March Madness anyway, with two top 10 RPI wins, including one on the road.
“They’re a good team,” Wells said. “We’re a good team. We could’ve won this game, just like we could’ve won against Duke and Virginia and all these other good teams that we’re playing close, and U-Conn. Something has to happen. And that’s something me and Coach Turgeon have to talk about. I’m going to put it on my shoulders.”
An admirable sentiment, no doubt, but how much can realistically be done this late? Maryland can score a RPI top 100 road win at Clemson on Sunday and a top 20 win against Virginia in the regular season finale. Perhaps the Terps can steal a victory or two during the ACC tournament, provided they finally make good on their promises to get over the hump.
But they have been these weary warriors all season. They have climbed mountains and neared the summit, so close they can taste the celebration. And then, with their eyes locked ahead on that elusive ranked victory, they have tripped over a rock and tumbled back down.