After Maryland’s 75-66 win against Illinois Feb. 7, there was no longer any doubt when it came to the question, “Is this Terps team legit?”
Yes. Yes very much so. In fact, Maryland had probably proven their legitimacy during the previous weeks, and even if the Terps had lost that game — a tough game on the road against a very good team — they probably should have been viewed as having had so much legitimacy that MC Hammer wouldn’t have allowed them to surrender.
But that wasn’t REALLY the question we were asking, was it? And it’s why even the best win in years for the Maryland program isn’t quite enough to truly answer the question either.
That’s because we’re not really worried about this team’s legitimacy. What we’re worried about is how things are going to go come March. That’s all we truly care about, at least until another Maryland team actually does something significant in March.
In the aftermath of the win against the Illini, internetarians pondered context for the win. Was it the best win of the Mark Turgeon era? Was it the best win of the Big Ten era? Was it the best win since the school dropped the Nike swoosh in favor of an interlocking “U” and “A?”
It was a most excellent victory. But it’s a win that will prove to be as good as whatever Maryland does moving forward. That’s not meant to be a “wet blanket” of a statement, just a true reflection for context. We, of course, fondly remember Maryland’s win against then-No. 1 Duke at Cole Field House in February 2002 (you know, the one where Steve Blake pickpocketed Jason Williams?) But we have far fewer memories of the Terps sweeping Duke (including a win against a No. 2-ranked Blue Devils team AT Cameron Indoor Stadium) during the 2004-05 season.
You don’t have to be a basketball historian — or to have even bothered showing up for most of your classes in college — to realize to know why. One team went on to win a national championship. The other lost three games to f*cking CLEMSON down the stretch and was responsible for an 11-year streak of making the NCAA Tournament coming to an end.
So how big was Maryland’s win against Illinois? Here’s where we come full circle. It was as big as whatever they manage to do at the end of the season. If they make it to a Final Four, it was the first road win against a top-20 team in more than a decade and perhaps the night when a fan base finally became willing to embrace a fairly maligned head coach. If they struggle down the stretch and suffer an early NCAA Tournament exit, it was a decent win, I guess, and let’s not forget that it’s been more than a decade since Maryland last defeated a top-15 team on the road still.
Look, the question we’ve been asking isn’t, “Is this Maryland team legit?” The only context we view Maryland in these days is more along the lines of, “Will things be different at the end of the year than they have been in other years?”
Believe it or not, I cannot see the future. That’s a shame because the Braves are home the same weekend as the Final Four and I haven’t seen their new stadium and I’d love to start putting some plans into place already. I don’t know if things will be different at the end of the year for Maryland. I can’t tell you the Terps definitely won’t run into a team playing absolutely perfect basketball and on one given day things just won’t come crashing down for them.
But this team has three opportunities to do something that hasn’t happened yet in the Turgeon era and would drastically change the narrative surrounding the program. Maryland could win a Big Ten regular season title, a Big Ten Tournament title or they could win at least one significant NCAA Tournament game. And what I can say with absolute certainty is that after their performance in Champaign, Ill., I firmly believe this team has a chance to do any of those things.
NONE of us can possibly know what’s going to happen. None of us can be certain there won’t be injuries or chemistry issues that arise for strange reasons. While the calendar says we’re less than a month from March, let’s not forget that … well, it’s a leap year so that’s 24 hours further away than it would usually be. Oh and also, the cliché thing — that in basketball terms, it’s still a bit of an eternity.
But the win against Illinois was a reminder that not only does Maryland have one of the best players in the country (Mount Saint Joseph’s Jalen Smith) and a steady veteran point guard (Anthony Cowan), but as we expected, if they could just get a LITTLE bit more from their wings, they might be capable of being extremely dangerous. Perhaps one solid game shouldn’t make us believe that Eric Ayala can suddenly become a consistent outside threat but if he can, this might actually be a team that is as good as just about anyone in all of college basketball.
AND … of course … we have to credit Mark Turgeon. It’s been a tough run for the ninth-year coach since arriving in College Park, Md. Separating from the breathless Twitter trolls whose commentary simply is not worthy of acknowledgment, criticism of Turgeon during his tenure has been largely been fair. The majority of Maryland fans haven’t had it out for the coach, they’ve just been quick to point out his lack of tangible accomplishments and the sometimes puzzling play of the team, particularly on offense.
Yet as this team has come together of late, it’s been buoyed by arguably Turgeon’s best stretch of coaching. He’s made good decisions (aided by the quality of the player) to help keep Smith out of foul trouble. He wisely made a number of defensive scheme changes against Illinois after his team was overwhelmed early on. And it would be hard to totally separate how the team came to life against the Illini after the fire the coach showed early on, including a technical foul. After the game he told reporters that he had told the team at Christmas that he would “fight for them like crazy” moving forward. That was particularly evident.
There are certainly some of you that will remain reluctant to fully get emotionally invested in this team due to past scars. I can neither blame you nor say with any amount of certainty that you’re wrong to do so. But this is clearly Turgeon’s best overall team since coming to Maryland, led by his best player (by a considerable margin), and this is the best sustained job he’s done since arriving.
I can only tell you they truly have a chance to be different. I can’t promise anything.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox