Maryland isn’t quite at the point of playing with house money.
But the Terps pretty much have broken even thus far.
Yes, we were giddy with visions of Houston for a Final Four trip when Maryland opened the season ranked No. 3, earning more first-place votes than anyy school except No. 1 North Carolina. The Terps boasted the Big 10 preseason player of the year (Melo Trimble); another member of the preseason all-conference team (Jake Layman); the presumptive Big 10 freshman of the year (Diamond Stone); and a pair of impactful transfers (Rasheed Sulaimon from Duke and Robert Carter Jr. from Georgia Tech).
However, we recalibrated the outlook when the regular season concluded with five losses in eight games, including a 26-point beatdown at Indiana in the finale. There was simply too much inconsistency, too little toughness and just enough doubt, putting Mark Turgeon’s squad squarely in the sleeper column for the NCAA tournament.
Now, one of 16 teams left standing, Maryland has overachieved as a No. 5 seed. But the Terps are seven-point underdogs against Kansas on Thursday, and either Miami or Villanova likely would be favored in the next round.
According to college hoops stats guru Ken Pomeroy, Kansas has a 73 percent chance of winning. At least Maryland has a shot.
The Jayhawks are playing as well as any team in the country, winners of 32 games with their last loss occurring on Jan. 26. They’re a Top 10 team in three-point shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage, and among the Top 20 in effective field goal percentage defense and two-point shooting percentage defense. Glaring weaknesses are non-existent.
Maryland could play its absolute best and still lose. There would be no shame because Kansas is that good. The Jayhawks have less overall talent but they’ve been more cohesive and shown more grit. The Terps’ season would fall short of early expectations with a defeat, but the campaign wouldn’t be a true failure.
Reaching the second weekend was never a given, regardless observers’ thoughts in November or two weeks ago.
Ask Michigan State, a trendy pick to win the national title after Selection Sunday. The Spartans were ranked No. 2 entering the tournament but trailed wire-to-wire in a stunning first-round upset against Middle Tennessee State.
Ask Xavier, the East Region’s second-seeded team. The Musketeers were bounced on a buzzer-beating three-pointer after a thrilling back-and-forth affair against Wisconsin.
And for the greatest-ever perspective on win-loss probability, ask Northern Iowa. According to FiveThirtyEight, the Panthers had a 99.96 percent chance of advancing to the Sweet 16 when they suffered an epic collapse in the final 35 seconds against Texas A&M. That was perhaps the closest a team ever came to a guaranteed victory – 12-point lead with half-a-minute left – while departing with an L.
Kansas coach Bill Self called Maryland’s starting lineup “as good or the best starting five in the country.” Each starter – Trimble (14.8), Stone (12.7), Carter (12.4), Layman (11.7) and Sulaimon (11.1) – averages double figures in scoring, something no other Big Ten team can claim. Self is well aware of the Terps’ potential and he certainly won’t let Kansas take them lightly.
For his part, Turgeon wants his team to forget about the up-and-down season, the lofty forecast and the flashes of promise. Maryland has sunk to the competition’s level too often and risen to a challenge too infrequently. But a long-awaited signature win is there for the taking on Thursday.
“My whole thing is I just want us to play well,” Turgeon told reporters Tuesday. “There’s been times this year we’ve been tight. Not a lot. But there’s been times when we’ve been tight and now there’s no reason for us to be tight the rest of the way. There’s a good chance we’ll be an underdog in most games.”
Having advanced to the second weekend, the pressure is off. They’re still one weekend short of the initial goal, but past the point of bitter disappointment with a loss.
“There are only 16 of us left,” Turgeon said. “We’ll be on the national stage playing the No. 1 team in the country. I want them to enjoy the moment and make the most of it.”
This tournament has seen double-digit seeds play with confidence and assurance while sending waves of fear through higher-profile teams. If the likes of Stephen F. Austin can knock off a No. 3 seed (West Virginia) and come within .01 seconds of taking down Notre Dame, then Maryland should have no problem playing with swagger and fearlessness.
It’s not quite having nothing to lose.
But it’s about as close as you can get.