The only time Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon watched Xavier play this season came in late January, and it happened to be the night that Musketeers guard Trevon Bluiett hit his first eight three-point attempts in a loss to crosstown rival Cincinnati. “This Bluiett kid is off the charts,” Turgeon said as he shook his head on Sunday night, divulging the extent of his knowledge on the team Maryland will face in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday in Orlando.
The day Turgeon watched Bluiett go off for 40 points came two days before his own team won a thriller at Minnesota, which ended up as the highest-rated game in Big Ten Network history and a cornerstone of Maryland’s postseason resume. Had the Terrapins not won in Minneapolis, freshman guard Kevin Huerter reminded everyone on Sunday, they might not have been in position to pick up a surprising No. 6 seed in the West Region.
‘You think of games like Illinois, we were down 10. Iowa, Melo hit two threes at the end of the game to win. At Minnesota, games like that, thinking back, if we had lost any one of those games, or two out of three or all of them, we might not have been in the tournament,” Huerter said.
While Maryland was euphoric over the committee’s decision — it was seeded ahead of Big Ten Tournament champion Michigan, as well as Wisconsin and Northwestern — Xavier represents a difficult first round draw.
Outside of the explosive Bluiett, who is averaging 18.1 points per game this season, Turgeon simply pointed to the experience of Xavier Coach Chris Mack, who has taken the Musketeers to three Sweet 16’s in his eight years at the helm.
“I know that Chris Mack is an unbelievably great coach. They’re NCAA tournament tested,” Turgeon said.
The testing of Xavier, which was the final team in the field to be announced on Sunday, has come in many forms this season. Guard Myles Davis was suspended at the beginning of the year and left the program in January. A couple days after Bluiett’s memorable showing against Cincinnati, it lost star point guard Edmond Sumner to a season-ending knee injury in a win over St. John’s. Sumner had been averaging 15 points per game, and the absence of that production was only compounded when Bluiett missed a couple games with an ankle injury in February. That came as the team began a long slog to the postseason; Xavier has just four wins since Feb. 8, three of which came against lowly DePaul.
But while the Musketeers still boast a game-changing talent in Bluiett, who shot 43.8 percent from the field and averaged 2.5 three-pointers made per game, they also are one of the best rebounding teams in the Big East. That could present the most formidable strategic challenge for Maryland, which struggled on the boards all season. Xavier is ranked 20th nationally in rebounding margin, at plus-6.6 per game.
The Terps went back to work Sunday afternoon before the selection show, with the usual itinerary marked as “practice number one.” Maryland has held over 80 practices this season, but none perhaps were more important than Sunday’s session, which came after a crushing loss to Northwestern in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals on Friday night. The team returned to its hotel in Georgetown afterward to sleep off its sixth setback in 10 games and in the morning, Turgeon began to lay out his plan for the NCAA tournament.
First, the players had to practice before nervously watching the selection show in the early evening. By Monday night, with the East Coast gripping for a massive snowstorm, the team left early for Orlando. Tuesday promised to bring another full day of preparation for an arduous first round game against an unfamiliar opponent.
“Our guys are really proud of themselves and what they’ve done this year. They’re excited,” Turgeon said. “Our veterans will talk to the young guys. We talked a little bit about it on Saturday morning before we left the hotel. We talked about what we had to do to prepare for the NCAA tournament, how we had to practice, what it was like. So we’ve done that already. It’s going to come quick.”
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