Maryland should have won Sunday afternoon. That doesn’t mean Michigan isn’t a worthy — even a superior — opponent. That doesn’t mean the Terrapins could have prevented any of the insane shots thrown in by Michigan’s Zavier Simpson, a guard who could teach Kareem himself about the skyhook, and might be required to call “bank.” It doesn’t mean the Terrapins didn’t do a decent job defending on the crucial, end-of-the-shot-clock three-pointer from Wolverines forward Isaiah Livers with just under a minute left. It went in anyway and killed the Terrapins.
Still, the postgame assessment:
“We got better today,” Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon said.
It’s March, Coach. The time for getting better in losses is slipping away. It’s time to get better in wins.
“I know it sounds crazy,” Turgeon said, so he gets credit for self-awareness. And his point is one a coach would make: Slide in the tape, watch the offense run, evaluate the looks you got, consider the quality of the opponent and say, “We did okay.”
But this is a results-oriented business, and this is a results-oriented time of year. And this is Maryland, whose fans expect to win its share of these games.
The Terrapins lost Sunday, lost to Michigan, 69-62, lost a game they could have won, lost a game in an emotional environment because those shots didn’t fall and because they couldn’t stop Michigan on — get this — seven straight possessions when the game was in the balance. Getting better in certain areas, that’s for the meeting room with your players. The broader assessment in coming weeks, if the Terps get better but lose anyway, is that their season will be over.
“The season’s not over,” guard Darryl Morsell said, and that’s a fair point right now. There’s no shame in losing to the ninth-ranked Wolverines, who have won 26 of their 30 games and are still in contention for the Big Ten regular season title. Michigan is deep enough that starting guard Charles Matthews could miss the game with an injury and the Wolverines could still win on the road.
“That is an athletic team that they got,” Turgeon said. “And the kid makes the four skyhooks? Are you kidding me? One, I can get. But four? How terrific is he?”
All true. But step back from Sunday’s missed opportunity. Widen the lens. Maryland’s season — once so promising — is in danger of petering out. What will happen to Turgeon’s support if it does? Let’s not go there, not yet, even as I know there are people thinking about it.
“We wanted this bad,” Turgeon said. Given how crestfallen he looked, there was no doubt.
But the fan base, it too wants it bad. A sellout crowd of 17,950 at Xfinity Center, including a raucous student section, showed that. This weekend marked the official celebration of 100 seasons of Maryland basketball. So there they were, taking their turns on the court during timeouts, Lefty’s guys and Gary’s guys, Tom McMillen and Steve Blake and Joe Smith and on and on and on. Juan Dixon narrated the pregame hype video. This was red meat to the Terps’ fans, a reminder of what this place can feel like when the basketball program is rolling.
“Lot of former players back, which was great,” Turgeon said. “Obviously wish we could’ve won for them.”
These Terps aren’t rolling, and it’s frustrating. Just this past week, they lost at Penn State, a game in which they barely showed up. They lost to Michigan, allowing the visitors to shoot 53.6 percent in the second half. They followed a seven-game winning streak in January that provided hope in College Park by going kerplunk, sputtering into Friday night’s regular season finale against Minnesota on a 5-6 stretch.
Turgeon would argue — and he did again Sunday — that this 20-game Big Ten gantlet is the toughest schedule he has ever had to coach in. But at some point, circumstances have to be dismissed, and wins must be churned out regardless. Plus, there are so many pieces to like here on this team that Turgeon has assembled that it becomes a little more maddening. Bruno Fernando should be able to get his shot whenever he wants it. Anthony Cowan Jr. is a veteran guard whose toughness is the Terps’ tenor. The freshman class is deep and talented.
So why does this stuff happen? In the first half, after the Terps made a rare strong start, they went eight straight possessions without a point, turning a six-point lead into a four-point halftime deficit. When Fernando scored on the block with 11:23 remaining in the second half to retake the lead, Maryland responded by going nearly eight minutes without a field goal.
And defensively? With Michigan’s lead just three points and just more than five minutes left, the Wolverines swung the ball to a wide-open Ignas Brazdeikis, who buried the three that began Michigan’s stretch of possessions without a Maryland stop. Fernando struggled all night against Michigan’s 7-foot-1 Jon Teske. Cowan missed 10 of his first 11 shots. And the freshmen — led by a spurt from forward Jalen Smith — couldn’t offset them.
“Don’t forget, now,” Michigan Coach John Beilein said. “Maryland is so young. They have two freshmen out on the court all the time. . . . They’re one of the youngest teams in the country.”
Turgeon should thank him for the assessment. The Terps’ reality, though, is you just can’t be certain who will show up, individually and collectively, on a night-to-night basis. That’s understandable in November. It’s harder to digest in March.
“We’ve still got a chance to do unbelievable things,” Fernando said.
That’s right. The last regular season chance is Friday against the Golden Gophers. The chance after that is in the Big Ten tournament, in which the Terps still could receive a double bye. The chance after that is in the NCAA tournament.
“We got till Friday to get better,” Turgeon said. “We’ll get better.”
They have to because there’s about to be no satisfaction for improving in a loss. It’s March, and Maryland is in danger of meandering through it.