There was no signature offensive performance that defined Tuesday night’s 67-55 victory for the No. 12 Terrapins over No. 11 Ohio State, and that’s just fine. Maryland didn’t play its prettiest basketball for 40 minutes, and that’s okay, too, because presumably the Terps will — at some point — figure out how to have something other than a sputtering start.
This was straight meat-and-potatoes, Big Ten hoops. Yeah, Cowan and Smith — the Terps’ essential combo — tied the bow and brought the grins, and they also combined for 31 points and 13 rebounds. But dissect it, and you find the element that can propel Maryland through what promises to be a frigid winter across the Midwest. Yeah, there’s the seven first-half three-pointers that looked so nice. More than that, there’s that number next to Ohio State’s field goal percentage: 31.3.
“We won,” Terps Coach Mark Turgeon said, “because our defense was just outstanding.”
There are things that will carry you through slick and sleety nights, and they’re not always alley-oops and three-pointers. Those things don’t necessarily travel. Defense — defense travels.
“We love it,” sophomore guard Eric Ayala said.
“Do they like to defend?” Turgeon asked. “I don’t know, but they like to win. They love to win. So they know that’s what we have to do right now.”
Right now is entering what promises to be a brutal run through an unforgiving Big Ten. Consider Turgeon’s assessment of the opposing Buckeyes (11-4), which he first made Monday and repeated after the victory.
“I’m encouraged, because I don’t think we’re playing great yet,” he said. “But we beat a really, really good team that I think could win the national championship if things go the right way in March.”
The whole thing? Talking up the opponent has existed almost since Dr. Naismith first hung up a peach basket. Those Buckeyes of which Turgeon spoke, though, have now lost three in a row and are 1-3 in the Big Ten. And yet, they have so many pieces, just like Maryland has so many pieces — just like the Big Ten, which is overflowing with pieces.
To get to where Maryland wants to go, this is the territory through which it must travel. So bring the will to guard people. Turgeon has already lamented that the Terps’ schedule is the hardest he has faced — as a player, as a coach, as anything. That could easily be seen as a preemptive PR strike — tell people it’s daunting before it really gets difficult, because then they’re prepared if and when there are bumps. Maybe Naismith didn’t invent that strategy. Could’ve been Phog Allen.
But there’s also truth to what Turgeon is saying. As conference play really gets underway, the Big Ten is clearly the deepest league in the land. Michigan State, the preseason No. 1 team with senior point guard Cassius Winston leading the way, may be — may be — able to distinguish itself.
Put the Spartans aside, though. There just aren’t any gimmes.
When Maryland lost at Penn State in December in its second conference game of the season, it seemed a black mark on the Terps’ résumé. Now, the Nittany Lions are ranked 20th in the country — or at least they were, until a loss Tuesday night at Rutgers. And looky here: The Scarlet Knights have won six in a row and are 3-1 in the Big Ten, with their only loss at Michigan State. The programs that are supposed to be pushovers are now pushing people over.
“Best league in the country,” Ohio State Coach Chris Holtmann said.
Coaches say that stuff all the time, and it’s self-serving. But in the NCAA’s NET rankings — which essentially replaced the RPI as a way to measure teams’ performances while considering strength of schedule, scoring margin, etc. — Maryland is one of three Big Ten teams in the top 15 and one of 12 in the top 50. That’s nearly one of every four teams from the same conference. No other league has more than six representatives in the top 50.
“We’re going to beat each other up,” Turgeon said. “There will be a couple teams that separate themselves. I just don’t know who it’s going to be yet, but the rest of us will probably just beat each other up — and hopefully we’re one of those teams that separates.”
He said that last part almost as an afterthought. Yet that’s the Terps’ test. And it should be their standard.
“In the Big Ten,” Cowan said, “there’s not going to be any easy nights.”
Here’s to thinking it’s the Terrapins who can make things difficult. Not just because Smith has developed into a much sturdier force inside, and not just because Cowan is second only to Winston as the conference’s best guard, and not just because they can shoot well enough that six players made three-pointers Tuesday. No, because they can guard.
“Their length provides, obviously, a lot of problems,” Holtmann said. “And Mark does a really good job. . . . I’ve always felt Mark’s teams are really smart in how they defend you.”
From here, it’s not easy. Four of the next five are on the road, and it can get cold and lonely in places such as Iowa City, Madison and Bloomington in January. It’s one of the reasons the Terps’ production and performance in these two most recent home wins over Indiana and Ohio State matter so much. If the league is really as good as it appears to be, protecting Xfinity Center will be essential in Maryland’s efforts to gain separation from a league that doesn’t offer opportunities to do that.
That’s particularly true with the knowledge that the Terps’ two losses — to Penn State and Seton Hall — have been in their only true road games of the year. A Friday night date at Iowa is up next.
“We’ve got to be a better road team,” Turgeon said. “We haven’t been a good road team yet.”
How to do that: Play defense. And enjoy doing it.
“When it’s five of us doing it together, and no one can score,” Ayala said, “there’s no better feeling than that.”
Other than winning. If this season plays out as it’s supposed to — ranked throughout the year, a top-four seed (or better) in the NCAA tournament, a run that lasts at least to the second weekend — then these games are building blocks. Not flashy. But necessary. Just like the defense they’re built on.
More from Barry Svrluga: