The Big Ten men’s basketball standings have featured far more congestion than separation this season, but No. 9 Maryland has a chance to establish itself as a legitimate front-runner. The Terrapins have won six straight games, none more critical than Friday night at Illinois.

The Terps and Fighting Illini tipped off tied for first place, and Illinois ignited a sellout crowd with an electric start. But then Maryland adjusted and defended — digging out of an early deficit that grew as large as 14 points — and departed State Farm Center not only as the conference leader but with a manageable path forward.

Now in his ninth season at Maryland, Coach Mark Turgeon has yet to win even a share of the regular season crown or a conference tournament. With eight regular season games remaining, Maryland (19-4, 9-3) has grabbed sole possession of first place, but Turgeon’s players insist upon looking no further than Nebraska, which visits Xfinity Center on Tuesday night.

Senior Anthony Cowan Jr. has been “one of those guys who’s reminding us that nothing’s really been accomplished yet,” sophomore Aaron Wiggins said. “A lot of fans are climbing on board because we got a couple wins in a row, but he’s been one guy to consistently say to us: ‘Don’t mind any of the outside business. Stay focused on us, because we haven’t accomplished what we want to accomplish yet.’ ”

Some NCAA tournament projections have as many as 12 Big Ten teams in the field or on the bubble, excluding only Nebraska and Northwestern. All 12 of those programs rank in the top 45 of Ken Pomeroy’s analytics-based ratings, and 11 Big Ten teams are in the top 40 of the NET, the NCAA’s evaluation tool. The 11 teams immediately behind the Terps have all won between five and eight conference games, so none of those opponents can be taken lightly.

That congestion derives from the improvement of the league’s middle class. No. 13 Penn State, No. 22 Illinois and Rutgers — three programs that finished last season with a 7-13 conference record — already have won eight Big Ten games each.

“We’re a game out of first,” Illinois Coach Brad Underwood said after Friday’s loss to Maryland. “You’re still playing for a championship. This game doesn’t define anything.”

Michigan State and Ohio State began the season pegged as the programs expected to join Maryland in the top tier. Once a top-five team nationally, the Buckeyes (15-8, 5-7) have slipped toward the bottom of the conference. The Spartans, considered a preseason national title contender, have lost three straight games and face Illinois and Maryland this week.

“There are so many good teams that you don’t get to play average,” Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said Saturday after his team lost at Michigan.

Maryland’s ascension to the top began after a disappointing 3-3 start to the conference slate. When the Terps lost Jan. 14 at Wisconsin, they had yet to win a true road contest. Since then, three of their six straight victories have come on the road. They played with poise down the stretch late last month at Indiana and surged back from an early deficit last week at Illinois.

“The world was coming to an end when we lost a game on the road,” Turgeon said, referencing that Wisconsin game, which Maryland lost after fumbling an inbound pass and giving up a late three-pointer. “I just believe in these guys.”

The Terps have cut down on turnovers, averaging nine per game since the Wisconsin loss. Maryland is shooting much better from behind the arc, and the offense has lately showed a bit more fluidity and ball movement.

Maryland has leaned on its two stars: Cowan and sophomore forward Jalen Smith. Cowan has averaged 17.2 points during Maryland’s six-game winning streak, along with 5.5 assists and 2.2 turnovers. Smith had a double-double in all six of those games, averaging 19.2 points and 12.0 rebounds with his confidence surging. Smith’s scoring hasn’t dipped below double figures since early December. In conference play, he has shot 47.7 percent from three-point range, the second-best clip in the Big Ten.

In the victory at Illinois, Maryland’s complementary players all performed well. Freshman Donta Scott, who has struggled lately, scored seven points in a quick burst that fueled Maryland’s run late in the first half. Wiggins hit two three-pointers in the final minute before halftime to trim Illinois’ lead. Junior Darryl Morsell played with toughness while focusing on defense but also scored in double figures for the fourth straight game. Sophomore guard Eric Ayala emerged from his slump with 12 points.

Maryland might not have the depth it once envisioned, but when these players behind Cowan and Smith deliver, the Terps showed they can beat a top-tier team on the road.

“We’ve taken it to another level,” Turgeon said last week. “We had to. We were 3-3 in the league. Our guys are playing [with] more confidence, but hopefully we’re not where we’re going to be in another five or six weeks. We’re going to hopefully be a lot better basketball team by then.”

Since joining the Big Ten for the 2014-15 season, Maryland has fallen off a bit late in the year. Through those five seasons, the Terps won 68 percent of regular season conference games before February but only 59.5 percent after Feb 1. The Terps began last season’s conference schedule 8-3 and finished 5-4, but the 2018-19 slate was backloaded with difficult matchups.

Through the past five years, Penn State and Illinois have shown the most improvement late in the season. Those two teams are tied for second in the Big Ten.

Maryland’s players have taken individual strides, and the team hasn’t lost in nearly a month. Wiggins said he recently found himself thinking, “I think we’ve come a long way more so in the past month than we have in the entire season.”

With eight games remaining, the Terps have just three matchups against teams that currently have winning conference records: home and away games against Michigan State, along with one at Rutgers. The five teams that have eight conference wins all have at least four more games against above-.500 teams.

“Every time we leave practice and we bring it into a huddle, we tell each other that we didn’t accomplish nothing yet,” Smith said. “So there’s no need to get complacent. ... We know that these next couple weeks are going to be the most crucial weeks for us.”

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