Maryland center Alex Len has attempted five three-pointers in games this season, missing them all. Yet here he was following a Saturday afternoon practice, smiling and hoisting deep jumpers in an around-the-world competition against Terrapins director of basketball performance Kyle Tarp.
All of the bitterness and irritation Maryland felt after Wednesday’s loss to North Carolina has dissipated entering Sunday’s season finale at Virginia. The Terrapins still haven’t watched film of the Tar Heels game. Maryland can’t afford to revisit its past foibles.
“We’ve moved on,” Coach Mark Turgeon said Saturday. “We watched a ton of film leading up to that game, and we’ve just moved on. . . . This time of year, if you can’t be excited about this time of year, what a great day on TV today for basketball. It psyches the hell out of me. I’m so excited for the next few weeks. And it starts tomorrow. Moving on, we thought it was the best thing to do.”
Win or lose against Virginia, the Terrapins (20-10, 8-9 ACC) will be the No. 7 seed in this week’s ACC tournament, facing the winner of Sunday’s Wake Forest-Virginia Tech game on Thursday evening. The Cavaliers (20-10, 10-7) have more at stake. Consecutive road losses at Boston College and Florida State slipped them further down the NCAA tournament bubble, but a win means a first-round bye as the conference’s fourth seed.
The odds of an NCAA tournament at-large berth are stacked against both teams. Maryland has alternated wins and losses over its past eight games, unable to string together the necessary résumé-bolstering streak. Virginia has beaten seven teams ranked in the top 100 of the Ratings Percentage Index — a metric used by the selection committee when it is considering at-large teams — but has also lost seven against teams ranked 100 or worse. Since 1994, only two teams have secured an at-large bid with an RPI of 70 or worse. The Cavaliers, according to CBSSports.com, are 71st.
Of course, both teams can also help their respective causes on Sunday at John Paul Jones Arena, where Virginia hasn’t lost since Delaware’s win on Nov. 13. But leading scorer and ACC player of the year candidate Joe Harris (9 of 26 over past two games) has slowed down since torching Duke for a career-best 36 points on Feb. 28. Even more concerning, the Cavaliers are 1-6 this season in games decided by four points or fewer. In their past three losses, they were tied or leading with 14 seconds left, and after falling behind couldn’t even muster a field-goal attempt on the final possession.
“I don’t know. We try not to think about it,” Harris said of Virginia’s recent struggles. “Obviously we’re very aware of it. We just talk about going out and playing and just having fun. I think we’ve kind of gotten away from it. . . . We kind of forget about enjoying it and playing with our teammates. We’ve been talking about it.”
Relentless double teams suffocated Len in the teams’ last meeting, an 80-69 Virginia win at Comcast Center on Feb. 10 when a suddenly potent Cavaliers offense shot 57.9 percent on three-pointers. In the somber aftermath, Turgeon called that loss “rock bottom.”
The Terps have since sunk lower. Their next game brought a thrilling two-point upset of Duke, but losses at Boston College and Georgia Tech soon followed, all but punching a ticket to the National Invitation Tournament. Last Monday, Maryland enjoyed what Turgeon called an “off-the-charts” practice, the best of his two-year tenure in College Park. True to its inconsistent form, however, the team regressed on Wednesday, finally slogging through a disjointed effort against the Tar Heels in the regular season home finale. Now comes another opportunity, something Virginia is looking for as well.
“I’ve had 9-9 teams in the league or 8-10, but there’s been streaks in there, different kind of streaks,” Turgeon said. “It’s just been that kind of year. You can’t put a finger on it. That’s what makes coaching great and tests you to figure it out. As a staff, we’re still trying as hard as we can. Hopefully as players they’re still believing that we can have a March around here. That’s really what’s important.”
Staff writer Mark Giannotto contributed to this report.