The traditional role of the columnist is in large part to aid in providing context for accompanying news. That’s not as easy as I’d like in the aftermath of Maryland clinching a share of the Big Ten regular-season title March 8 with a win against Michigan.
Some of the response is easy. We can start with a take so mild even my mother-in-law couldn’t complain that it was “just a little too spicy for her.” A share of the Big Ten title is definitely SOMETHING for Maryland and head coach Mark Turgeon.
Whoa. Call me “Glenn Bayless,” I guess. If you’re not overwhelmed by my “take quake,” let’s push forward.
A minority of Maryland fans have suggested that a split of a conference regular season wasn’t an accomplishment worthy of T-shirt and hats, cutting down nets and an inevitable future championship banner at Xfinity Center. That’s the easiest take to dismiss. The Big Ten was the toughest, most competitive conference in college basketball this season. Even a share of the title reflects an outstanding season worthy of recognition. If you’d rather spend your $32 as a down payment on a future bottle of hand sanitizer when it becomes available than a long-sleeved T-shirt celebrating the accomplishment, that’s your choice. No one is forcing the gear on you.
But the team has every right to celebrate. No matter how they got there, and no matter how many teams they have to share the title with, no one was better than them in the best basketball league in the country. That cannot be dismissed.
Of course, those qualifiers are where the “context” part of this gets murky. There’s less unbridled joy in Mudville because the end of the season has produced as much (if not more) anxiety for Maryland fans as it has delight. The Terrapins put together one of their most complete performances of the season against the Wolverines, but the memories of largely one-sided losses to Ohio State, Michigan State and Rutgers (as well as the miracle needed to survive Minnesota) loom significantly.
Yes, Maryland won a share of the Big Ten regular-season title. But based on where the Terps were three weeks ago, that’s actually kind of a disappointment because they only needed to go 3-2 in their last five games to be able to claim the title outright. The No. 3 seed in the Big Ten tournament (which means a quarterfinal tip-off after 9pm, much to Mark Turgeon’s delight) hardly even feels like a consolation prize when the top spot felt nearly assumed not that long ago.
The performance against Michigan certainly gives Maryland fans more hope that the team can return to form in the postseason, but the “faith” probably isn’t something the average fan is willing to invest just yet. Not only has the program never won a game against a single-digit seed in the NCAA Tournament under Turgeon, it’s won just ONE game against a single-digit seed in the BIG TEN tournament since joining the league. The Terps have won just two quarterfinal games in the event ever and never anything more.
(I get it, all teams are different. It’s unfair to hang the issues of years past on a team that had nothing to do with them. But such is fandom. To be fair, this year’s team already erased the stigma of the program having never won even a share of a conference title.)
Much has been made about the staggering number of minutes Maryland’s regulars have been forced to play as the team essentially tightened to a six man rotation in conference play (Anthony Cowan, Aaron Wiggins, Eric Ayala, Darryl Morsell, Jalen Smith and Donta Scott). Four days off appeared to do wonders for the team ahead of their regular-season finale. But to accomplish anything or significance in Indianapolis this weekend, the Terps will have to prove themselves capable of playing far better on short rest, something they haven’t done since winning three games in four days in Orlando Thanksgiving weekend, when the roster was also slightly more Mitchell-ed. The story will be the same if they want to get to the Sweet 16, or dare we suggest the Final Four?
But what happened against Michigan was also a perfect example of one of the easier opinions we’ve had about the team as the year has gone on: “If they can just have ONE other guard play well in a given game, they’re good enough to beat anyone.” Ayala (and Wiggins, really) were outstanding. Combining that with the typical excellence of Smith and Cowan makes Maryland almost overwhelming. If the Terps can keep getting that moving forward (a more than fair question considering how up and down things have been for the others), they’ll be capable of accomplishing things other Maryland teams haven’t.
Ultimately, the context necessary here really IS that this is a remarkable accomplishment that is worthy of recognition and celebration. Yet we also have to point out that one share of a conference regular-season title (without any other accomplishments of note) in a decade isn’t the standard expected of a high-level college basketball program. This shouldn’t be Maryland’s high-water mark. This should be a fairly regular occurrence.
Hopefully it won’t even be their most significant accomplishment this month.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox