“I’m looking at him dribbling down there, and I’m going, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe this is happening,’ ” Turgeon said. “And then I saw ‘Stix’ standing by the rim, and I thought, ‘Okay, I feel good about that.’ ”
These are the Terrapins, ranked ninth in the country, leading the nation’s toughest league, aiming to solidify their status as Big Ten favorites, with sophomore forward Jalen “Stix” Smith and senior point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. providing, of all things, calm and confidence. A year ago, they had won seven straight games headed to East Lansing, Mich., and got waxed. Now they have won seven straight games heading to East Lansing, and the contrast is stark.
“It’s totally different,” Turgeon said.
It’s different because they’re older, sure. But they’re also better. For this Maryland team, nothing is guaranteed. But anything is possible. And in mid-February, that’s where the Terps should be — in the national discussion, not lamenting the difficulty of their own schedule but rather reveling in how difficult they make the schedules of their opponents.
“We’ve been a tough out,” Turgeon said by phone Thursday night after the Terps (20-4, 10-3 Big Ten) had put in another practice to prepare for the Spartans (17-8, 9-5).
A tough out, sure. But in Turgeon’s tenure in College Park — which is now, amazingly, in its ninth year — he has never had a front-running season like this. The grueling Big Ten campaign is not far past the halfway point. Yet when was the last time Maryland reached this point — mid-February — and was playing from ahead?
These Terps were ranked seventh in the Associated Press poll in the preseason. They’re ninth now. More important, they’re eighth in the NCAA’s NET rankings, which will have a bearing on their seeding in the NCAA tournament. None of Turgeon’s four previous tourney teams at Maryland have been seeded higher than fourth. Right now, the Terps would be penciled in for a No. 2 seed. Win the Big Ten regular season and the tournament? Well . . .
“Our guys aren’t caught up in it at all,” Turgeon said of their mid-February, pre-Michigan State standing. “There’s not an ounce of us feeling like we’ve accomplished something. Now, we’re confident. We believe we have a chance to be the best team.”
That’s the best team in the Big Ten — and beyond. It doesn’t sound like posturing. And it doesn’t sound crazy. It sounds reasonable. In a college basketball season in which San Diego State, Baylor and Dayton can make claims to be among the best teams, why not Maryland?
Take Tuesday night, an obvious trap game for the Terps, wedged between a tough game at Illinois — hot on Maryland’s heels — and the upcoming date with the Spartans, from which ESPN will broadcast its “College GameDay” festivities. To a man, the Terps were dissatisfied with their performance against the Cornhuskers, who were just 2-10 in the league.
“We didn’t like the performance,” Turgeon said. “But we were happy we won. It’s that hard to win.”
True enough in the rugged Big Ten, where 10 teams reside among the top 40 in the NET rankings. (The ACC, by comparison, has three.) On Tuesday, Smith — whose improvement from last season can’t be measured with a yardstick but rather requires a tape measure — swatted away Mack’s game-winning attempt, and the Terps survived in College Park. He is third in the conference in rebounding. He is third in the conference in blocked shots. He is averaging 15.1 points. He is a force.
It is a measure of the Terrapins’ development that Smith — not his actions but his presence — provided Turgeon comfort against the Cornhuskers and is a major reason for optimism at Breslin Center, maybe the Big Ten’s toughest venue. Last season, when Maryland had ripped off those seven straight wins — six of them in conference play — Smith was physically dominated by the Spartans, who ended up going to the Final Four. He managed six points and three rebounds, the latter number his lowest output in conference play.
That game was, in a way, a pivot point to get Maryland to where it is today. Last season’s Terps sputtered to the finish. The loss in East Lansing spurred a 7-8 stretch run, one that included a loss to Nebraska to open the Big Ten tournament and a last-second loss to LSU in the second round of the NCAAs. And then there’s the backdrop from previous seasons: a 5-9 finish to 2018, when the Terps missed the tournament. A 4-7 finish in 2017 that included opening-game losses in the conference and NCAA tournaments. And a 5-6 stretch run in 2016 with a team that was ranked third in the preseason.
This season feels different. It has to be different. To combat repeating those old springtime results, Turgeon said earlier this season that he had delayed practice, that all his moves were made to help the Terps reach late February and March and peak rather than peter out.
Can you evaluate that kind of stuff midstream?
“A lot of times, coaches say things,” Turgeon said. “Maybe I was hoping I could talk it into existence.”
Well, here they are, in position to will it into existence. Turgeon gave his team nearly a week off over the holidays. The Terps had a pair of players transfer midseason, so they aren’t as deep as expected. They have taken — gulp — back-to-back days off during the season to try to remain fresh.
Will it work?
“We’ll see,” Turgeon said.
What we know: If an opposing player is dribbling down the court in the waning seconds, Turgeon has reason to feel confident and comfortable. These Terrapins lead the Big Ten at a time when it doesn’t yet matter. But they have Cowan running the point and Smith guarding the rim. They have the pieces to finish the Big Ten race right where they sit now: in first.
Nothing is guaranteed. Anything is possible. That’s right where Maryland basketball should be at this time of year.