After Defeating Wingate, Maryland Men’s Basketball Set To Return To Big Ten Gauntlet

Maryland men’s basketball found itself in a familiar spot this week — a scheduled Terps opponent had paused activities due to COVID-19, forcing an upcoming game to be called off. Head coach Mark Turgeon’s team faced this predicament four times in just over a week at the start of the season, and an uninterrupted start to Big Ten play came to an end with Maryland’s scheduled Jan. 16 matchup with Nebraska postponed four days ahead of time.

Rather than rest for nine days between a Jan. 10 upset of Illinois and a Jan. 19 road contest against unbeaten Michigan, the Terps scheduled a Jan. 15 matchup with Division II Wingate. And after handling the Bulldogs at home, Maryland is now 8-6 for the season as it resumes its Big Ten gauntlet.

Final score: Maryland 100, Wingate 58

For the first few minutes, the Terps played like they didn’t think the game counted. They compounded a 1-of-7 shooting start with multiple early turnovers, allowing Wingate to take a 16-12 lead at the under-12 media timeout of the first half. In a quiet arena, everyone on hand could hear Turgeon imploring his players to move the ball.

Maryland woke up, though, immediately going on a 9-0 run to take a lead it wouldn’t relinquish. The Terps led 47-34 at halftime, then dominated the second half, pulling ahead by 30 by the 12-minute mark and 40 with 6:34 left. They started the period on a 41-14 run and outscored Wingate 53-24 in the half overall.

Aaron Wiggins continued his strong run of play since the turn of the calendar, tallying 21 points and six rebounds (including 18 and five in the first half). He led a group of five Terps to reach double figures and 13 scorers in total. Galin Smith notched 13 points, while Darryl Morsell and Hakim Hart scored 11 each. Freshman James Graham III, playing in his third career game, scored his first 10 collegiate points in the second half, including eight on three consecutive shots.

As time wound down, Maryland had the rare opportunity to empty its bench. Three more players scored their first college points down the stretch — Swiss freshman forward Arnaud Revaz knocked down one of two free throws, freshman walk-on Aidan McCool sank a pair at the line, and junior walk-on Jade Brahmbhatt hit a triple as the bench went wild.

In all, Maryland shot 32-of-53 (60.4 percent) from the field and 12-of-26 (46.2 percent) from long range, while holding Wingate to 30.2 percent and 25 percent on the other end. These numbers don’t mean much given the competition level, but a game like this can provide a confidence boost to several players across the roster. And in a difficult Big Ten schedule that’s getting even tougher, that could be just what the Terps need.

“I thought offensively we shared the ball — 27 assists on 32 baskets was terrific,” Turgeon said. “And then you want guys to feel good about themselves. We had four guys that never scored at Maryland that scored today, so we had great enthusiasm for those guys. And we were able to play our starters and our top guys 20 minutes, and they had to play hard and they played well, and then we got guys minutes. So it’s really what we wanted to get out of today. I don’t know if we could have drawn it up any better.”

So why did Maryland play Wingate anyway?

It’s easy to roll eyes at a team of Maryland’s caliber actively seeking to schedule a Division II opponent, especially given Turgeon’s history of soft nonconference scheduling. But given the strength of the Big Ten this season, and the league schedule accounting for 20 of a possible 27 games, the Terps didn’t exactly need additional challenges. Turgeon said in a press release that his priority was “maintaining our rhythm and building depth as we prepare for our final stretch of Big Ten games and push for the postseason.”

And there’s an incentive to schedule a Division II opponent rather than a lower-level Division I foe in a situation like this. Metrics used for the NCAA Tournament, most notably the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET), count all Division I games toward a team’s resume but don’t count non-DI contests. So playing a mid-major would actually have hurt Maryland’s strength of schedule, which is currently among the toughest in the country. Playing Wingate didn’t help or hurt that number.

“You know, the one thing we have going for us is our league is terrific and we got Clemson in the ACC challenge, and they’re 12th in the country,” Turgeon said at his pregame media availability Jan. 14. “So we play an unbelievable schedule, so we thought instead of playing a Division I team that’s a little bit lower, let’s play a really good Division II team and it won’t affect our NET and it won’t affect our strength of schedule, and we can still play a game. And sometimes these D-IIs are better than low D-Is, just to be quite real with you, so that was our thinking.”

Wingate is currently 6-3 in Division II play, including a victory over No. 10-ranked Queens University, which knocked off Howard and played close games against George Mason and Belmont in November. For Maryland, though, this was a glorified midseason scrimmage that served a particular purpose.

Are the Terps even good enough to worry about their NCAA Tournament resume?

Actually, yes.

Maryland is an interesting case study for this season. The Terps are 8-6 overall and just 2-5 in the Big Ten. But thanks in large part to two massive road wins — at Wisconsin and Illinois — and the overall difficulty of the schedule, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had this team in his First Four Out of the NCAA Tournament field Jan. 15.

With the second half of the Terps’ Big Ten schedule looking easier on paper than the first — they close the month with three more top-15 opponents, then face just two more currently-ranked teams after that — Maryland will have a chance to climb back toward .500 in league play. Given the strength of the league, something around 9-11 or 8-12, giving Maryland a winning record for the season, would at least put the Terps in the bubble discussion.

Staying in that discussion, of course, is contingent on winning more basketball games. The Terps know that, and they know nothing will come easy. But even in what’s admittedly a down year, they’ve shown they can play with just about anyone.

The schedule is back to throwing its regularly scheduled haymakers this week.

Maryland returns to action Tuesday, Jan. 19, at No. 7 Michigan, a team that beat the Terps 84-73 on New Year’s Eve and was undefeated until this past weekend, when the Wolverines lost at No. 17 Minnesota. And the Terps visit those Golden Gophers Saturday, Jan. 23. It’ll take another ranked road upset — Maryland is already one of just two teams with multiple such wins this season — to avoid slipping to 2-7 in the Big Ten. Winning either contest, though, would be a massive notch in the Terps’ belt come postseason evaluation time.

Junior guard Eric Ayala, who missed the Illinois and Wingate games with a groin injury, seems likely to return this week, but Turgeon maintains Ayala is day-to-day. Even if he goes, Maryland won’t be able to count on him operating at 100 percent, which puts the onus on everyone else, from the veterans to the rookies, to step up. Perhaps it’s fortunate, then, that playing a Division II opponent allowed players all over the roster to show what they’re capable of.

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox

Thomas Kendziora

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