Terps Basketball: Big Ten Tournament Thoughts
With the regular season already in our rear-view and the Big Ten Tournament in our immediate future there is a lot to chew in in just 1,000 words. Let’s give it a try…
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First, it was a remarkable season for Maryland basketball. This team entered the season with one stud guard in Melo Trimble, a handful of decent veteran players – a couple of which never really contributed much due to injuries- and three heralded, but unproven, freshmen.
This team probably should have lost to American University in the first game of the season. Then they absolutely took the heart out of cross-town rival Georgetown with the kind of comeback that will have you lead off Sportscenter. From there it was on to more rabbit-out-of-the-hat wins against Towson and Richmond and Kansas State and Oklahoma State.
Want an encore after the 12-1 non-conference start? Ok, how about rolling five consecutive conference roadies at Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Ohio State? A good part of the damage done during that stretch was done by the three freshman that nobody knew anything about two months earlier. By the time February rolled around the Terps were 8-1 in league play and had served up more road kill than any diner in Morgantown.
Sure, there were stretches of February that weren’t kind to this team but all teams are tested at some point and the team bounced back to win its last two games of the regular season to finish 24-7 overall and a sterling 12-6 in conference play. Anyone who says they could have predicted all of this after the American games is telling tales. No chance!
I have some really random thoughts as we head into the Big Ten tournament at Verizon this weekend. The first applies to all of the awards given out by the conference on Monday. Like all Terp fans I was really happy for Trimble with his rightful selection on the first team. He deserves it and his performance and personality permeated a really malleable group. Coaches get a lot of credit for molding teams but sometimes that can take a back seat when a team takes on the personality of its best player. Melo was unselfish (sometimes to a fault), played hard game in game out and played through plenty of mistakes, all the while playing with an almost child-like love for the game. The team followed suit. He was also fearless in the toughest of situations and seemed to relish the opportunity to play in heart-stopping games. The team followed suit. If, in fact, the dagger three he hit against Michigan State was the last shot he made at Xfinity Center, what better way is there for a player to go out?
When Maryland left the ACC for the Big Ten I, for one, was really looking forward to leaving the evil axis of Carolina-Duke-NC State. The Terps had more than held their own competitively but it always seemed like we were on the outside looking in, hence the greatest Gary Williams line ever uttered, “we might as well be in Siberia”. So we go to the Big Ten thinking things might be different. Not so much. I completely get the fact that there were a lot of good freshmen in the league. And I understand that Terp coach Mark Turgeon was one of three guys who did really great jobs with their teams this year (the others being Richard Pitino of Minnesota and Chris Collins of Northwestern). But when the all-rookie team was named there wasn’t a Terp in sight. And Pitino ended up with Coach of the Year.
If Maryland didn’t have a lot of talent – and that must be the consensus given the fact that Melo was the ONLY Terp to be recognized (conversely five Minnesota players were recognized), then shouldn’t Turge be a lock for Coach of the year?? I mean, he ended up 12-6 in league play after being picked tenth.
You can’t have it both ways.
Perhaps the team can use the slight as motivation. Maybe there is motivation enough knowing that they are plenty good enough to win a conference tournament that is played in their own backyard. As cool as it is to not have to travel, the Terps got some nice help during the last weekend with the way other conference games ended. Their half of the draw looks a little less brutal than the Michigan State-Minnesota-Purdue half. Sure, you have to beat three good teams to win this thing but your first opponent is going to be someone you handled this year (either Ohio State, Rutgers or Northwestern). If things go according to seed and you find yourself playing Wisconsin on Saturday, the Badgers will have had to endure either Indiana or red-hot Iowa. You have to like the draw.
One of the things that should serve the team well at Verizon is its depth. That is one thing that both sets it apart and is crucial to win games on consecutive days. Turgeon has a lot of buttons he can push. At a time of year where a lot of coaches shorten their bench, he has gone in the opposite direction. He has tried to incorporate Dion Wiley into the mix after his lost season and maybe that will help this weekend. For my money one of the most unsung players is one of the guys who gets the most heat from fans and message boards- Ivan Bender. Any player who has ever played the game wants to be given the chance to play extended minutes without fear of getting yanked after the first mistake. Center Michal Cekovsky’s broken ankle has given Bender that chance and he has been rock solid. There are certain centers in the league he is a little too small and unathletic to deal with but he has a terrific feel for the game offensively and is an excellent team defender.
Whether by design during the recruiting process or by development during practice, Turgeon has a team that knows how to play the game. It’s not just Bender. The team IQ is the single biggest reason it has won 24 games and has a better than a puncher’s chance to make some serious noise this weekend.