It started with Radford, a team Maryland easily beat as expected, and it took a couple weeks to realize what had begun.
A few days later, the Terrapins embarked on their two-month marathon of conference games by knocking off then-No. 24 Nebraska before winning on the road twice, with one requiring a late adjustment to come back. Last week, Maryland took down another ranked team and then fended off Wisconsin’s second-half surge.
The Terps have strung together six straight wins, five of them in Big Ten play, heading into road games Friday against Ohio State and Monday against No. 6 Michigan State. No. 19 Maryland has begun to separate itself from the middle-tier crowd of tournament-worthy Big Ten teams and has moved within a half-game of conference leaders Michigan State and Michigan.
“We’ve got a huge upside,” Coach Mark Turgeon said last week after Maryland beat then-No. 22 Indiana, a game he said his team wouldn’t have won a month prior.
Maryland (15-3, 6-1 Big Ten) hadn’t beaten a ranked team since February 2016; with wins over Nebraska and Indiana, the Terps have defeated two since the new year began. It is only the third time Turgeon has won at least five consecutive conference games in his eight seasons at Maryland (the others were an eight-game streak, which included one win in the league tournament, in the 2014-15 season and a seven-game run in 2016-17).
Three of the six wins during this streak have come by margins of four points or fewer. Turgeon, who has come under criticism in the past for not winning in those situations, joked after Monday’s 64-60 victory over Wisconsin, “It’s good to win a close game so people won’t talk about me, ‘cause I know how it is.”
The run has had the effect of dividing the season into two parts, with one ending and the other beginning on Dec. 22. That day, Maryland self-destructed with missed free throws and poor decisions down the stretch in a loss to Seton Hall.
“December 22 was a tough day,” Turgeon said just before the Terps headed to Minnesota to earn their fourth straight win. “We had to learn from it, and we're all just kind of growing up from it.”
Against Seton Hall, Maryland made just 12 of 20 free throws, with two of those misses coming on the front end of one-and-ones. Through these last six games, the Terps have not only been more accurate from the foul line, they’re getting there more, too. Since Dec. 22, Maryland has averaged 22.8 free throws per game, making 81 percent. (In the first 12 games of the season, Maryland made just 71 percent of its free throws.)
Maryland continues to rebound at an elite level, ranking third in the nation in rebounding margin through Wednesday’s games. The freshmen are long past experiencing their first big-time Division I games. At times, four or even five newcomers are on the court.
After the Seton Hall game, Turgeon committed to using his bench more; forward Ricky Lindo Jr. and Serrel Smith Jr., both freshmen, have averaged more than 16 minutes per game since. Plus, two of the Terps’ best players, sophomore forward Bruno Fernando and junior guard Anthony Cowan Jr., have “turned it up a little bit,” Turgeon said.
“Coaches have been preaching confidence to us, especially since we have a young group,” Cowan said of a team that plays five freshmen in its eight-man rotation and has the fifth-least-experienced roster in the nation, according to KenPom.com. “It’s crazy just how the young group has been playing when we get in these super-loud buildings, super-packed-out buildings, how composed they are. It’s really great to see.”
As the Terps have continued to win, they’ve done so without having perfect nights. When Fernando ran into foul trouble against Wisconsin, Lindo helped fill the void. When freshman Jalen Smith missed all nine of this shots from the field and finished with two points against Indiana, Fernando and Cowan carried the offense.
“We’ve got a lot of talent,” freshman Eric Ayala said after the Indiana game. “It’s good for us to know that one guy goes down, next man steps up.”
Apart from the two teams in Michigan, Maryland’s six-game winning streak is the best in the Big Ten. Second-ranked Michigan (17-0, 6-0), Michigan State (15-2, 6-0) and Maryland all have six conference wins, while Purdue and Iowa have the next most with four.
Against Minnesota, the Terps trailed by eight points in the second half before Turgeon switched to the zone defense, which ultimately turned the game into a 15-point Maryland win. Turgeon called the Indiana game “one of the best wins” in his career because of how Maryland started poorly but came back.
In the Terps’ most recent game, Maryland did the opposite, starting well and finishing cold. After the 21-point lead slipped away, Cowan hit a go-ahead three-pointer in the final minute to help preserve the win. And now on Friday, Maryland will try again, seeing if can extend its success to yet another game in a conference that makes consistent winning a difficult pursuit.
“It’s not getting any easier,” Turgeon said after Maryland beat Wisconsin. “We’ve got to go on the road — Ohio State, Michigan State — the next two games. It is what it is. It’s the best league in the country. Just to get another one is terrific for us. I want our guys to know that — that they’re doing some amazing things, that it’s not going to be easy and to stay confident.”