ROSEMONT, Ill. — After missing the NCAA tournament in March, Mark Turgeon and the Maryland men’s basketball team turned their focus to a 2018-19 campaign featuring a schedule conducive to building a tournament-worthy résumé.
As Big Ten coaches met Thursday for the conference’s media day near Chicago, they stood in agreement that the expanded conference slate, which now includes 20 games, will improve teams' strength of schedules and, they hope, lead to more postseason opportunities. Maryland also will start the year with a nonconference schedule that features five teams that played in the 2018 NCAA tournament: Loyola Chicago, Marshall, Radford, Seton Hall and Virginia.
“It tests us early,” said junior guard Anthony Cowan Jr., who was named to the media-selected preseason all-Big Ten team Thursday. “It doesn’t give us a night off. Every night we’re just going to have to be able to come to play.”
But in those first two months of the season, the Terps' tests will come close to home. Maryland’s entire nonconference schedule takes place in its home state, including a game at Navy in Annapolis and the matchup against Loyola Chicago in Baltimore, the hometown of probable starters Darryl Morsell and Jalen Smith.
Last season, Loyola Chicago made it to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed, so once the Dec. 8 game arrives, Turgeon said “hopefully by then my young team will be experienced.” With six scholarship freshmen, Turgeon said this might be the youngest team he has ever coached.
Before the new year arrives, Maryland’s only out-of-state trip will be its Dec. 6 game at Purdue, one of the two conference games the Terps play before their Big Ten schedule begins in earnest in January.
“We have some games in there where we’re able to have our young team grow,” Turgeon said. “But we also have some games in there where we’re really going to challenge our guys and get us ready for the Big Ten.”
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said the conference hopes to push basketball closer to the forefront in November and December, noting it is not planning to "cede the college sports scene to college football” in that time period.
Maryland’s game against Virginia is part of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, the three-day event in which every Big Ten team plays an ACC opponent. That’s one way Delany said the conference aims to elevate the quality of competition early in the season. Also, Maryland’s December conference games come during the lull between the end of the football regular season and the start of bowl games.
“We have to find ways to present basketball,” Delany said. “We shouldn’t give up November and December. We’re going to try to have more meaningful games. . . . I don’t think there’s anything less interesting than bad college basketball in the month of November. We’re trying to improve it.”
While Maryland participated in the NCAA tournament for three straight years under Turgeon from 2015 to 2017, the Terps haven’t made it past the Sweet Sixteen with him in charge. The 2018 season ended with an 8-10 Big Ten record and an early exit from the conference tournament.
The new 20-game Big Ten schedule creates a challenge, Turgeon said, in finding the right balance between nonconference games that can boost the school’s tournament résumé and others that give the Terps a chance to work out issues in a less difficult setting.
But the change adds two opportunities to record quality wins, which Minnesota Coach Richard Pitino said seems to be what the NCAA selection committee is looking for when choosing tournament teams. Delany expects other conferences to follow suit.
“This should allow us to get more teams in the NCAA tournament because our strength of schedule is going to be better for all of us,” Turgeon said. “I think it’ll be really good for the league.”