Dez Wells wanted to describe the anger the Maryland men’s basketball team felt after its 20-point loss at Pittsburgh on Monday, nearly allowing a marginal profanity to slip from his lips. But the junior forward caught himself and offered a sly smile to the public relations official monitoring the session. Soon everyone began to laugh.
“We took that loss very seriously,” Wells said. “Everybody was very, very mad about the game, about how we played.”
By Saturday afternoon, though, the Terrapins were launching half-court shots from near the scorer’s table to see who could hit the rim on a bounce at the end of practice. It was a distinct contrast to how the team felt in the wake of Monday’s loss. But with six days between games and Sunday night’s contest at Florida State ahead of them, what else could the Terrapins do but move on?
“We knew what had to be done,” point guard Seth Allen said. “We met together as a team after the game and we didn’t really talk about it. It’s one game, we have to be positive and get better on defense. Just keep moving forward.”
Yet until Maryland (10-6, 2-1) finds a solution to its many problems, moving forward will be difficult.
Halfway through the season, Maryland has yet to jell into a cohesive whole, despite the undeniable talent that fills its roster. In the unpredictable, topsy-turvy ACC — as the team bus left for the airport Saturday, Clemson was finishing off a 72-59 win over No. 16 Duke and North Carolina had already fallen to 0-3 in conference play after its 57-45 loss at No. 2 Syracuse — Maryland’s struggles aren’t unique.
But reaching the NCAA tournament, seen as an attainable goal in preseason, has become an afterthought, secondary to stringing together consistent performances, which still has not happened to a meaningful degree this winter.
“They’ve got to get better,” said ESPN analyst Kara Lawson, who provided the color commentary for the Maryland-Pittsburgh game. “A snapshot of this team right now, they’re not a tournament team in a snapshot. They haven’t played consistently, they’ve had to switch around a lot of different lineups. But just because they’re not [NCAA ready] right now doesn’t mean you can’t become one and can’t play your way into becoming one.”
The Terps have plenty to fix. They still commit turnovers on nearly one of five possessions. Their four-man front-court rotation averages less than 15 points and disappears for long stretches.
Sometimes, the offense abandons its motion principles and devolves into an isolation game, one player dribbling the basketball and the other four watching him.
Allen is still adjusting to the speed of college basketball after missing eight weeks with a broken foot, and though his presence takes ballhandling pressure off wings like Wells and Nick Faust, re-acclimating Allen into the system remains a work in progress.
Coach Mark Turgeon brushed aside the notion that Maryland lacked chemistry.
“I don’t think that’s been a problem,” said Turgeon, who is 4-15 at Maryland in ACC road games and 0-3 against the Seminoles. “I think our chemistry and our rotation’s been better. We just ran into a really good team and didn’t shoot the ball well. It hasn’t been a problem.”
So what, then, is the issue for the Terps, who failed to score a marquee win in nonconference play and have only beaten Boston College and Georgia Tech — which are a combined 15-17 — in ACC games? Intangibles such as a lack of toughness surfaced in Pittsburgh, and Florida State, ranked third nationally in defensive efficiency and 11th in block percentage, again will test Maryland in that regard. The Seminoles (10-4, 1-1) have beaten both then-No. 10 VCU and Massachusetts, currently ranked 19th, on neutral floors and lost to No. 10 Florida by one point on the road.
After the Pittsburgh game, Turgeon surprisingly declared that he felt more encouraged after the loss than before it. He heaped credit onto the Panthers while chastising the Terps for their lethargic finish. Saturday, he was even more optimistic. Through 16 games Maryland has underwhelmed, at least when compared with preseason expectations. But with these problems in mind, the Terrapins left for Florida State having forgotten about Pittsburgh, improbably smiling about the future.
“I believe in my guys,” Turgeon said. “I won’t ever not believe in them.”