And just like that, Maryland men’s basketball’s lead in the Big Ten has disappeared.

The No. 9 Terps, who led the field by two games when they hosted “College GameDay” the morning of Feb. 29, have now lost consecutive contests and three of their last four games. After falling 78-66 to Michigan State Feb. 29, they laid an egg in Piscataway, N.J., en route to a 78-67 loss at Rutgers March 3 that wasn’t even that close.

Maryland led this game for all of 52 seconds and trailed for the final 35:35. The Terps never found an offensive rhythm against Rutgers’ physical defense, consistently settling for threes and clanking them off the rim. They started this game 2-of-20 from distance and finished 6-of-32, dragging them down to 38.5 percent overall. Rutgers, meanwhile, shot 49.2 percent as a team and 7-of-16 from 3.

Anthony Cowan Jr. scored 13 of his 19 points in the first half, while Jalen Smith tallied 12 of his 17 after intermission. But they got no help; none of their teammates scored in double figures and the rest of the squad shot 12-of-41 (29.3 percent). Rutgers got 17 points from Jacob Young, 15 from Montez Mathis and 11 from Geo Baker in a performance that warranted a court storm.

Now the Terps are tied with Michigan State atop the Big Ten, both sitting at 13-6 in the conference with Wisconsin and Illinois lurking at 12-6. Let’s try and make sense of all this.

What’s Gone Wrong

It’s hard to win basketball games if you’re hardly ever leading. And in the last four games, Maryland has led for a total of 5:51. The Terps have spent 71:47 trailing by double digits.

The common thread in these games has been the defense. All four of Maryland’s opponents have scored at least 73 points, and they’ve averaged 1.18 points per possession. For a Terps team that rode its defense to the top of the league standings, that’s an alarming trend.

Maryland’s offense, meanwhile, has been up and down all season, and it hasn’t been nearly good enough to overcome the defensive issues in these four contests. The Terps have shot 40.7 percent from the field and a woeful 25.7 percent from 3-point range (on 27 attempts per game). They were 6-of-32 from distance March 3, their third-worst mark of the season and worst since Jan. 10 at Iowa.

Aaron Wiggins has followed outputs of 20 and 16 points with matching four-point clunkers. He’s 3-of-16 from the floor and 0-for-8 from deep in the last two. Eric Ayala, who also looked like he was turning a corner as recently as the Ohio State loss Feb. 23, is 5-of-17 (3-of-13) in his last three games. Even Cowan has been slumping — he’s 15-of-47 overall and 3-of-21 from deep in these four contests.

Seems safe to say that if the defense isn’t playing up to its standard, and most of the offensive cast is struggling, the results will be less than ideal.

The Silver Linings

Maryland still has Jalen Smith, who’s recovered from a quiet performance against Ohio State with three consecutive double-doubles, averaging 17.3 points and 11.3 boards. He’s 18-of-31 from the field and 4-of-8 from distance during this stretch.

The extended rotation (players outside the top six) has also been more visible and in some cases more reliable. Hakim Hart and Ricky Lindo were somewhat productive against Michigan State, and Serrel Smith Jr. and Joshua Tomaic were both plus-5 against Rutgers.

Now What?

Maryland, after all this, can still clinch a share of the Big Ten title with a win March 8 against Michigan. And if the Terps get some help — No. 19 Ohio State visits Michigan State later that day, and Wisconsin and Illinois still play twice each — they can still win the league outright. But they don’t control their destiny in that regard anymore.

There are serious postseason implications in play as well. Maryland can slide as far as the No. 3 seed in the Big Ten tournament even with a victory against Michigan, and a loss could drop the Terps to No. 4 next week in Indianapolis. And ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi dropped Maryland to a No. 3 seed for the NCAA Tournament after the loss to Rutgers; it was knocking on the door of a No. 1 seed before the Ohio State game.

It doesn’t take much to send the Maryland fan base into panic, but there’s plenty of reason to be worried at this point. A win March 8 will put a banner in the rafters and alleviate some concerns as the postseason approaches, but the Terps have plenty of leaks to plug between now and then.

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox

Thomas Kendziora

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