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Maryland’s NCAA tournament hopes will rest on a strong second half and those three road wins

Sophomore forward Donta Scott has become one of Maryland’s top players this season. (Will Newton/The Washington Post)

Halfway through the Big Ten season, the Maryland men’s basketball team has only three conference wins, placing the Terrapins near the bottom of the standings and marking a significant decline from last year’s squad, which won a share of the regular season title. Yet Maryland’s NCAA tournament hopes have survived because all three of its conference wins came on the road against ranked teams, and it faces a less daunting schedule ahead.

The Terps (9-8, 3-7) started league play with a grueling stretch of games, packed with road trips and top opposition. Maryland struggled at times but still grabbed road wins against then-No. 6 Wisconsin, then-No. 12 Illinois and then-No. 17 Minnesota. The back half of Maryland’s schedule is heavier on home games and matchups against teams toward the bottom of the conference.

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So despite their record and inconsistency, the Terps are just inside the NCAA tournament field or one of the first teams out in most projections. The Big Ten’s stature as possibly the nation’s best conference helps, and the Terps already have those three quality road wins. To feel somewhat optimistic on Selection Sunday, they’re probably chasing a 9-11 Big Ten record, which would require a turnaround in the coming weeks.

“We’re not going to roll over, just because the league’s really, really good and we’re not where we want to be as a program right now,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “We’re going to try to figure it out and compete.”

Heading into Tuesday’s home game against No. 24 Purdue, the Terps have yet to defeat a conference opponent at home. The matchup against the Boilermakers (12-6, 7-4) is the type of game that could help lift Maryland toward its tournament hopes without requiring a major upset. Purdue defeated Maryland, ­73-70, when they played on Christmas in West Lafayette, Ind. A victory for the Terps in the second edition of this matchup would be a positive sign heading into a critical stretch of games.

Six teams in the Big Ten have fewer than five conference losses — No. 4 Michigan (8-1), No. 12 Illinois (7-3), No. 7 Ohio State (8-4), No. 8 Iowa (6-3), No. 19 Wisconsin (7-4) and No. 24 Purdue (7-4). The Terps have nine games against those programs on their schedule. They already have played seven of them. The matchups remaining, against Purdue and Ohio State (on Feb. 8), are at home.

The Big Ten’s strength “absolutely makes you better,” Turgeon said. “You can’t take a night off. You can’t take a possession off. Every team’s a little bit different, and it makes you better faster. That’s really what the league’s done with my team, because we’re much further along today than I thought we would be after Michigan got us at home [on Dec. 31].”

Maryland is joined by four other teams that haven’t won more than three conference games — Penn State (3-6), Northwestern (3-8), Michigan State (2-6) and Nebraska (0-5). During the second half of Maryland’s conference schedule, the Terps play those teams at least five times and possibly six, if a postponed game against Nebraska is rescheduled.

The Cornhuskers, who haven’t won a conference game in more than a year, postponed their trip to College Park because of a coronavirus outbreak in their program. The schools don’t have an obvious mutual opening in their schedules, but that could change depending on future adjustments. Another way to make up the game would be to play twice during Maryland’s trip to Lincoln, Neb., this month.

A victory over the struggling Cornhuskers wouldn’t do much for Maryland’s résumé, but it’s the most winnable game remaining on the Terps’ conference schedule — even in Lincoln. If the Terps improve in the second half of the conference season, they could go from finishing 8-11 (as analyst Ken Pomeroy projects) to 9-11. Maybe that offers a small boost to their NCAA tournament hopes.

Throughout the past month, Maryland has established a seven-man rotation that leans heavily on the four key returners from last season — junior guard Eric Ayala, junior guard Aaron Wiggins, sophomore forward Donta Scott and senior guard Darryl Morsell — who each averaged more than 30 minutes in January Big Ten games. Sophomore Hakim Hart, who plays point guard at times, has emerged as an important contributor. Forwards Jairus Hamilton and Galin Smith each usually record just under 20 minutes, depending on the game.

Turgeon started a four-guard lineup in the past two games. That group — Hart, Ayala, Wiggins, Morsell and Scott — has become Maryland’s best and most-used lineup during conference play. The team has had to adapt without a traditional big man who can score, so Turgeon has employed a simpler offense, “but we’re getting better at simple,” he said.

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The Terps’ three wins against top Big Ten teams showed they have potential. The theme across those wins was a strong defensive effort, usually a hallmark of Turgeon’s teams but less so this season.

“I think we’ve all realized that, when we’re a defensive-minded team,” Wiggins said, “we’ll win games and that we have a better chance of being in games when we’re guarding.”

In Maryland’s most recent game, against the Badgers on Wednesday, the Terps let an eight-point deficit grow to 18 in the final few minutes before halftime. They eventually narrowed Wisconsin’s lead to three but never got closer. The Terps’ standout performances from earlier conference games flashed promise, but that type of execution needs to be replicated from game to game.

Maryland doesn’t have any players who are likely to leave for the NBA after the season, and even Morsell could return because of the NCAA’s eligibility waiver. Turgeon has at times referenced how this team could stay mostly intact heading into next season. But for the Terps, who have missed the NCAA tournament only once since 2015, improving over the next six weeks so they can land in the field of 68 is what matters now.