All of that became obvious in the first few minutes Sunday in Orlando. Soon after, Maryland grabbed a lead, which began to swell. From that moment, the Terps erased any question about whether they would win. Their commitment to defense didn’t waver. They smiled and celebrated baskets and played in a way that oozed confidence but never lacked composure.
“I knew our guys were going to be locked in,” Coach Mark Turgeon said after his players held the Orlando Invitational trophy with streamers raining down on the court.
The energy, the execution, the poise — everything Maryland needs to sustain success — seemed to reveal itself. And all of that arrived at an opportune time. With that convincing win now in the past, No. 3 Maryland (8-0) ventures deeper into a stretch of more challenging opponents that could end the Terps’ unbeaten run. They haven’t started 9-0 since the 1998-99 season.
Beginning Wednesday, when Notre Dame (6-1) visits College Park as part of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, the Terps will test whether what they showed against Marquette indicates a level of play that will last. Maryland then plays a pair of conference games — Saturday against Illinois and Tuesday at Penn State — before traveling to No. 16 Seton Hall on Dec. 19.
In Ken Pomeroy’s analytics-based ratings as of early Tuesday evening, all four of those upcoming opponents ranked between 16th (Seton Hall) and 52nd (Notre Dame). In their first seven games — all of the ones before the Marquette matchup — the Terps faced teams inferior to what they’ll see for most of December.
Asked whether this felt like the point when the schedule flips toward marquee matchups on a consistent basis, sophomore guard Eric Ayala said: “Yeah, and I think that tournament prepared us. We had some battles.”
In the opening game of the Orlando Invitational against Temple, Maryland trailed by as many as nine points in the first half and by five at halftime. The following day against Harvard, the Terps had fallen behind by 11 during the first half and by four at halftime. Each game featured a sluggish start, but each turned into a win.
Maryland capped its time in Orlando with its most complete performance of the year. Turgeon said he thought his group played well for 35 minutes. (Marquette had a brief second-half surge after it switched to a zone defense and the Terps couldn’t make shots.) Before, Turgeon hadn’t liked more than about 25 minutes of a game, so that may be the most encouraging takeaway from the Marquette win — not necessarily that the Terps started strong, but that they played well for almost the entire game.
“We've got a little bit different attitude this year,” Turgeon said. “We've got a better winner's mentality. And it shows by the way we compete in games and figure out ways to win.”
Maryland has adjusted well during games this season. Using multiple defenses, Turgeon has opted for switches that have altered matchups and slowed opponents. The Terps have responded well to deficits, as they had to do twice in the Orlando tournament.
The Terps’ freshman core from last season now has a year of experience. Three of those players — Ayala, forward Jalen Smith and guard Aaron Wiggins — are part of the Terps’ best group of five, even though they don’t always start together because of Turgeon’s preferred matchups. Maryland is still the 51st-youngest team in Division I, according to Pomeroy, but in his metric that measures continuity in player contributions from one season to the next, the Terps rank 11th.
That experience adds a level of comfort and confidence, Wiggins said, “knowing that no matter what happens if we stick to the game plan, if we’re locked in, if we’re ready to play, we’ll be successful and we’ll come out with the win.”
Given that returning talent, the Terps began this season with high expectations. But the three wins in Orlando, even the one against Marquette, remind more of Maryland’s potential than any specific accomplishments.
Even in the moments after the championship win, junior guard Darryl Morsell, who had just played possibly the best game of his career, mentioned the long season ahead. Senior Anthony Cowan Jr. said the Terps “still really haven’t done anything yet.”
After the tournament, Maryland climbed to No. 3 in the Associated Press poll. Only two preseason top-10 teams, Maryland and Louisville, have yet to lose. As long as the Terps keep winning, the spotlight will intensify.
“We’ve gotten used to it,” Turgeon said. “And Maryland should want to be where we are, so these guys have got a lot of confidence.”
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