Their admittedly slim hopes for an NCAA tournament at-large berth definitely dashed, the Maryland Terrapins took 24 hours to digest their relegation to the National Invitation Tournament. Then they went back to work.
Motivation shouldn’t be a problem for Maryland, which hosts Niagara (19-13) at Comcast Center in Tuesday’s first round. A deep run would serve as a springboard into the offseason. Reaching the semifinals at Madison Square Garden would provide a proper sendoff for senior James Padgett, a Brooklyn native. As sophomore Dez Wells plainly said, as if everyone else had forgotten, “Well, we’re still playing for something.”
Coach Mark Turgeon expressed concern over Maryland’s mental and physical fatigue after a three-game, 44-hour grind through the ACC tournament, featuring victories over Wake Forest and Duke. His players are less concerned. Some are teenagers; others in their early 20s; all not far removed from the AAU basketball circuit, where playing multiple games in tight time frames is standard. The Terps fancied their 10-man depth an asset in Greensboro, N.C., site of the ACC tournament. That still applies.
The Terps have no opportunity to be tired. Their opponent, Niagara, possesses no off button. The undersize Purple Eagles play up-tempo, relying on forced turnovers and impeccable ball control to win the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular season title. Sophomore guard Juan’ya Green, Coach Joe Mihalich’s most diverse weapon, has played at least 40 minutes in nine games.
Classmate Antoine Mason, son of former NBA player Anthony Mason, has done that four times too.
“I’m anxious to see what they’re like today in practice,” Turgeon said. “We’ll go light, but we’ll prepare hard. Hopefully our energy level is high. I know our confidence level should be high. There’s some things Niagara does that we have to work on to get prepared for. That’s my biggest concern, more than motivation. It’s just physically.”
Wells, who twisted his left knee against Duke following two strong games, exhibited signs of fatigue against the Tar Heels. Pe’Shon Howard defended all-ACC players for three straight days. Even Turgeon, his voice hoarse during Monday’s news conference, is battling sickness.
Even more troublesome is the thought of a post-ACC tournament letdown.
“We want to win the NIT,” Howard said. “A lot of tough teams in it. Now that we’re one of the higher seeds, it’s pressure on us to win. We don’t want to be one of those teams that has a slip-up or is still hung over from not being in the NCAA. We want to play well and put on a good performance for Maryland.”
Turgeon, who likes to remind reporters he arrived in College Park to find just six scholarship players, made it clear that the Terps will soon be aiming higher than the NIT.
“Yeah, like next year?” Turgeon said. “Is that soon enough?”
Still, he took some satisfaction in the progress his team made during a season that featured 22 victories, including two over Duke.
“I judge it differently than you guys judge it,” Turgeon said. “I can tell by the way we’re playing, the way we’re executing, the way we’re defending. . . . Are we going to play perfect tomorrow night? No. But hopefully we play well, well enough to get a ‘W.’ I feel like we’re growing up. I really do.”
Maryland, which hasn’t won three straight games since ACC play began, is motivated by its ACC tournament run, playing with “confidence and swag,” as Nick Faust said.
“We’re ready to go,” said Howard, his clasped hands covering a tattoo that reads, “Focus.”
NIT first round, 7 p.m. ESPN2