Maryland’s men’s basketball players sat high above the Xfinity Center on Sunday evening, watching the NCAA tournament selection show on the arena’s giant video board from a half-court suite. They each wore black shirts emblazoned with the words “Play For More,” a new three-word credo the team advertised as they patiently waited to hear their fate.
It came quickly, as Maryland was tabbed as a No. 5 seed in the South Region and assigned to play No. 12 seed South Dakota State on Friday in Spokane. It provides a unique and intriguing challenge for the Terrapins, who embraced the cross-country trip as an opportunity to clear their heads and lock in on the Jackrabbits (26-7), who won the Summit League championship.
“Sometimes it’s good to get away from home. It is,” Turgeon said. “I feel bad for our fans; I really do. I feel bad for our families, because it’s a long ways away on Friday. But it might be good for us to get away and really lock in and concentrate.”
Turgeon said he expected his team to slip at least one seeding spot after it was revealed that Michigan State was a No. 2 seed after winning the Big Ten championship. Kansas earned the top seed in the South, while Villanova and Miami locked up the second and third seeds, respectively. Should Maryland advance Friday, it would take on either No. 4 seed California or No. 13 seed Hawaii on Sunday.
Maryland’s players know South Dakota State well. They first scouted the Jackrabbits when both teams competed in the Cancun Challenge back in November. Maryland guard Rasheed Sulaimon noted the shooting ability of the Jackrabbits, who averaged 76.3 points per game this season and have won six straight.
“They’re a good program as of late. They are a great shooting team that can really space the court, so we’re going to have their hands full,” Sulaimon said. “But they’re also going to have their hands full with us too.”
Unlike last March, when Maryland celebrated its first berth to the NCAA tournament in five years with a large gathering at Turgeon’s house in Kensington, the team kept a low profile Sunday after returning from the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis. The team rested throughout the day and held a private viewing of the selection show. There were no plans for a celebration, not for a team that has for months faced expectations as a national title favorite, only to see those expectations fade over the past month.
Maryland has lost five of its past eight games, including a crushing 64-61 setback to Michigan State in Saturday’s Big Ten semifinal. A win over the Spartans likely would have boosted Maryland’s seeding and given Turgeon’s team another chance to pad its resume with a showing in the conference championship game Sunday.
But even though it “just wasn’t meant to be,” as Turgeon said after Saturday’s loss, his team at least showed glimpses of its tantalizing potential in Indianapolis and picked up momentum.
“We battled,” Maryland forward Robert Carter Jr. said. “Had a chance to win versus another great team. So we just learned that we’re back, and we can compete with anybody, and it’s going to be a fun NCAA tournament.”
Maryland showed up on both ends of the floor in two separate performances in Indianapolis. The Terrapins set a Big Ten tournament record with 97 points in a quarterfinal win over Nebraska, running its half-court and transition offense as seamless as it has all season. Not more than 15 hours later, right before the semifinals against Michigan State, Turgeon told his team that the most likely way to beat the Spartans was to keep the score in the 60s.
He was right. As Maryland’s offense sputtered – the Terrapins hit just one field goal over the final 10 minutes 23 seconds – its defense flourished. That was the primary objective of the past week: to revert back to the group that had established itself as one of the best defensive teams in the country midway through the season.
It had faded in four losses in six games to end the regular season, only to reappear Saturday: Maryland held Michigan State to just six field goals in the second half (28.6 percent shooting) and had a chance to win on a late layup attempt by Melo Trimble, which fell short. The close loss on a neutral floor gave the team confidence to take on a new experience this week in Spokane, which will require a six-hour flight Wednesday and quick preparation for a dangerous South Dakota State team.
“We’re excited. Going to Spokane, get to get away for a little bit,” Maryland forward Jake Layman. “We’re ready to play.”
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