As the Maryland men’s basketball team prepared for its biggest test of the young season, Terrapins Coach Mark Turgeon would point into the Comcast Center stands to help ease the tension.
“Red seats,” Turgeon told his players. Maybe, the reasoning went, the familiar color scheme would relax the Terrapins during their first true road game on Wednesday night at No. 5 Ohio State. “The building probably looks a bit like this, so we should feel a little comfortable in it.”
Value City Arena, home to the undefeated Buckeyes, is indeed stuffed with red, and Turgeon’s half-joking motivational technique underscores the message he’s trying to impart to his team: Maryland will face enough pressure from Ohio State’s players in this year’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge game. It cannot afford to be overwhelmed by the hostile environment, too.
On one level, the Terps (5-2) are in a more enviable position than the Buckeyes (6-0). They are the underdogs, playing in their first true road game of 2013-14 against a team that has reached the Sweet 16 in four straight seasons. The burden, theoretically, should be on Ohio State to defend its home court and avoid the upset.
But the Buckeyes boast the nation’s best defense according to college basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy, a pestering back court in Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott, and an experienced rotation with four players averaging at least 11 points per game. Maryland, which has won four straight since suffering arguably the worst loss of the Turgeon era against Oregon State on Nov. 17, sees Wednesday’s game as a measuring stick.
“Really, that’s a statement to see where you are,” Turgeon said. “I wouldn’t say we have to have this game, but we need to play well in a big-time environment and act . . . that we’re much more mature, much further along than we were at this time last year.
“This is a whole different animal, a whole different game.”
In last season’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge, the Terps crushed Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., by 20 points, and Turgeon was irked by the fact that his team would have to travel again for this year’s event. Eventually, though, that anger dissipated. Ohio State Coach Thad Matta has built a perennial juggernaut, one that has averaged over 30 wins per season since 2009. A road loss likely won’t damage Maryland’s NCAA tournament profile all that much. A victory, however, would catapult the Terps into the national conversation.
Still, some Terps fans may view the tough road matchup as yet another slight from a vengeful ACC seeking to make life difficult for Maryland before it officially moves to the Big Ten next season. Turgeon and his players have been more positive.
“The team is a team, regardless of how they’re ranked, what they’re ranked, because anybody can be beaten on any given night,” forward Charles Mitchell said. “We just go out there with the mind-set to play Maryland basketball. We’re not focused on where they’re ranked, who they are as a school.”
Maryland forward Evan Smotrycz knows the challenge Value City Arena presents. Before he transferred to Maryland, Smotrycz faced Ohio State six times in his first two college seasons at Michigan. He beat the Buckeyes once, in Ann Arbor, and has never won in Columbus.
A veteran on-court presence whose smartly timed pump fakes and slow pacing bring a measure of calm to the Terps, Smotrycz has served as a Big Ten liaison to his teammates, given his familiarity with Ohio State and the stadium’s raucous atmosphere. This season, Maryland has committed turnovers on exactly one-fifth of its possessions, which could play right into the hands of Craft and Scott. He knows the Terps can’t afford to get rattled.
“That’s always been big, especially at the start of the season with our turnover problems,” Smotrycz said. “As the season goes on, we’re getting better. It’s going to be tough. As long as we stay composed, we should be okay.”