College basketball proclamations are fickle in March, let alone November. But we could say this much before Virginia’s impressive and enjoyable 76-71 victory over Maryland on Wednesday night and have further evidence afterward: The Cavaliers have a true and clear identity, and even with a hiccup here and there — some notable, for sure — they are among the nation’s most consistent programs. The Terrapins are an annual work in progress, searching to find themselves. They have talent and potential, but who’s to say what they will become?
“We’re going to get better,” Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon said afterward. “We already have.”
It’s his job to make sure that happens, that when the calendar shows March, you can look back and say: He was right. They’re better.
Say this much for Turgeon, even in defeat: He’s got his players right there, believing along with him.
“I’ll tell you what,” freshman guard Eric Ayala said. “We’re going to be one hell of a team come March.”
Update: Virginia is one hell of a team — correct that, one hell of a program — right now.
For a night, though, wasn’t this fun, a chance to take the temperature of two schools who identify with basketball above all else? Remember when these programs played twice a year, and . . . okay, okay, we won’t go there. This was the ACC/Big Ten Challenge between two teams that entered at 6-0. Let’s enjoy it for what it was.
“We lost to a great team tonight,” Turgeon said, “that played at a high level.”
He’s right. The differences between these two programs are easily discernible at the moment. Of the seven players in Virginia’s regular rotation, only one — point guard Kihei Clark — is a true freshman, and five have been in the program at least three years.
“That’s our formula,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said. “Always has been. Get guys and get them to their upper classmen years.”
It’s not the current formula in College Park, whether by design or happenstance or a combination of the two. Of the eight players in Maryland’s regular rotation, five — count ’em, five — are true freshmen, and only guard Anthony Cowan and senior reserve Ivan Bender (two minutes Wednesday) have been in College Park for three years.
“Let’s be real: We’re playing five young guys out of our top eight,” Turgeon said. “We’re going to have some growing pains.”
There’s not that much pain in losing to Virginia at this point, particularly given Maryland whittled a 17-point deficit to four in the second half. And it’s not that you can’t win the way Turgeon’s roster is assembled. You can. It just requires growing — and quickly. That’s on Turgeon’s freshmen, at least in part, and there’s progress. Ayala looked mostly steady in more than 35 minutes, guard Aaron Wiggins worked out early jitters to score 13 points, and the potential of forward Jalen Smith is obvious.
But the growth, it’s on Turgeon, too. He’s unwavering that it will happen.
“Tonight was a good experience for us,” Turgeon said, “and we should be better because of it.”
Bennett, though, knows more about his team because he has known his team longer. He has managed to do what most college coaches can’t or won’t in the current environment. He seasons the sauce, puts it on a low simmer and allows the flavors to meld. It’s how a team can play its first true road game of the season in front of a sellout crowd of 17,950 at Xfinity Center and commit just two — two — turnovers.
“There’s no substitute for playing the games that Ty and Kyle and Deandre and Jack have played in,” Bennett said, flipping through starters Jerome (junior), Guy (junior), Hunter (redshirt sophomore) and Salt (redshirt senior), respectively. Those four veterans combined for 62 of Virginia’s 76 points Wednesday. It’s by design. Maybe that formula wouldn’t work everywhere. But man, does it work in Charlottesville.
“It’s really hard to do in today’s world,” Turgeon said the day before the matchup. “I think it’s a combination of things. It’s the way they recruit. They recruit good players, and they’re getting better and better players every year they’ve been successful. They develop them.
“But they have a lot of four- and five-year guys, and they get older. And I think in the college game, if you can get older, you give yourself a chance.”
And so Virginia again has a chance. For the Cavs under Bennett, that’s the status quo. His nine previous seasons have yielded six NCAA tournament bids, including five straight. More telling of Virginia’s national standing, though, are the three No. 1 seeds. One of those could come following a single extraordinary year. Three of them come from having a program of extraordinary standing.
Now there’s the matter of that loss last March to that school from Maryland — UMBC, that would be, the first No. 16 seed to fell a No. 1. And yeah, that hurts. And yeah, the Maryland crowd — with not much else to grab onto — chanted “UMBC!” at the Cavs in the waning moments.
But it’s worth noting that the Maryland fans who issued that chant didn’t have the pleasure of watching the Terps in the postseason — any postseason — in March. It’s also worth noting that loss came without Hunter, injured in practice the week before and the one Cavaliers player who could take over a game individually when it has gotten away from the rest of the team.
“It’s a model that’s worked for them,” Turgeon said. “I think you’ll see a player come out of high school at Virginia, he’ll redshirt, and then three years down the road you’re like, ‘Holy cow, has that kid gotten better.’ ”
That’s Turgeon’s challenge now, except it’s intensified. He’s not redshirting any of these kids, and he doesn’t have three years to slow cook and meld. He has to take these Terrapins through a daunting Big Ten schedule and be able to say, “We’re better today than we were last week.” If he does, it will be a fun winter in College Park.
It’s a significant “if,” though, and it doesn’t apply to the Terps’ opponent Wednesday. We already know it will be a fun winter in Charlottesville because the Cavaliers have embraced exactly who they are, and the results — results such as Wednesday’s — follow.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.