Seth Allen walked into Pe’Shon Howard’s bedroom, a blue sling hooked over his shooting shoulder, and was greeted with an exit order. “Get out,” Howard cracked to his freshman teammate. “You’re going to bring us bad luck.”
Of course, Allen stayed. He grabbed a stuffed animal from Howard’s bed and lounged around joking for the evening, anything to take his mind off the cast pinching his forearm and hand.
As the Maryland men’s basketball team continues to mature, each postseason experience brings another benchmark for the season’s progress. This week, the Terrapins will encounter two unfamiliar challenges, one expected and the other shocking.
Attempting to swipe the ball for a steal during Sunday’s practice, Allen instead fractured a bone in his shooting hand. He will travel with the team to Alabama but dress in street clothes, unable to provide the typical bench energy he’s brought this season. So Maryland will play without its third-leading postseason scorer, forced to adjust 24 hours before boarding the team bus, already faced with a daunting task in Tuscaloosa.
The Crimson Tide, which will host Tuesday night’s National Invitation Tournament quarterfinal, hasn’t lost at Coleman Coliseum since Dec. 30. Like Niagara and Denver, Maryland’s two previous NIT opponents, Alabama runs small and pressures hard, making Allen’s absence all the more critical.
“I feel bad for Seth,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “He’s really been playing well. It’s a big blow to us, because of the way he’s been playing. But it just gives other guys opportunities to step up.”
Turgeon might reallocate Allen’s minutes into the front court, where a quartet of forwards and centers hopes to impose its size and strength against a team that rotates just one player taller than 6 feet 8. Switching to a five-guard lineup helped jump-start a stagnant Terps offense against Denver last Thursday, when Alex Len logged a season-low 14 minutes. Howard, Nick Faust and Dez Wells will take on a larger back-court load in Allen’s stead.
Regardless of Maryland’s strategy, traveling to Alabama represents a measuring stick for Turgeon’s progress in two years. The Terps lost by 20 points to the Crimson Tide in Puerto Rico on Nov. 17, 2011, an early indication of the choppy terrain ahead. Turgeon hit the reset button this offseason, retaining only four regulars while welcoming six new players into College Park. That Maryland is here, one win from the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden, says plenty.
“Every game is a test to see how much we can grow up,” Howard said. “It’s uncharted waters, a situation we haven’t been in before. So it’s like coach’s test for us. It’s like a pop quiz every time we step out on the court. It’s all about how we handle it. We’re excited for the opportunity. It’s more just the fact that it’s one more step towards a championship. That’s enough excitement for us.”
The Terps are 4-1 this postseason with ACC tournament wins in North Carolina against Duke and Wake Forest, virtual road games at Greensboro Coliseum. They’ve defended better and shot smarter, axing the quick-shot mentality from their repertoire. The thought of Alabama’s full-court press has Turgeon giddy. After giving his players Friday and Saturday off, he wants an opportunity to run.
“On the road, we know how far we’ve come,” Turgeon said. “We know how far we’ve come from Puerto Rico. For us to have 24 wins, really starting over this year, we really have. Is it a measuring stick? Yeah, but it’s also a measuring stick that we’re in position to be in this game less than two years later. I just want us to play well. I want the kids to be loose, have fun and play well.”