- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 7, 2016

COLLEGE PARK — The slight flaws that pervade college basketball this season have found their way to Maryland. They crept inside the filled and boisterous Xfinity Center on Saturday, even latching onto the cheerleaders. During Saturday’s rollicking introductions, a few went for their lettered signs to spell out Maryland before it was time to do so. They had to reclaim their discarded pom-poms and re-establish rhythm with their bouncing cohorts.

The Terrapins, too, had a ding. Facing gargantuan Purdue, which runs everything through the post, Maryland was forced down into the pits with the Boilermakers’ big front line. That complication left Purdue’s guards open on the other side, though there would be no punishment. Purdue was 3-for-25 from behind the 3-point line. Maryland rallied to win, 72-61.

The fourth-ranked Terrapins are an imperfect team. The uplifting news for them is that their all-in season is unfolding when surrounded by other top-tier teams with holes. What they are, a tough defensive team with surprising offensive lulls, may be enough to get them to Houston, when March Madness extends into April to determine the national champion.

When the rankings are released Monday afternoon, Maryland will creep closer to the top. Shortcomings owned by its upper-crust brethren saw to that. Top-ranked Oklahoma lost at Kansas State on Saturday night, displaying the formula for its dismissal. Oklahoma is the nation’s most accurate 3-point shooting team, but it had a bad night in Manhattan, shooting 25 percent. It was a one-off that led to a loss against the 14-9 Wildcats, who were blown out by Kansas three days earlier. March gamblers, be warned.

No. 2 North Carolina put together a bumbling week. It lost twice on the road to would-be tournament teams, doubling its loss total for the season. Louisville, which beat North Carolina to start the week, self-imposed a postseason ban by the end of it. Notre Dame will be expecting to hear its name on Selection Sunday.

Only one team in the top 10 this week is likely to have two losses: Xavier. The rest will have at least three, many with four. There is no rumbling juggernaut, and this is out of the ordinary.

At the same time last season, the top three teams in the country had combined for two losses. Kentucky remained undefeated. Virginia had lost once, as had Gonzaga. Only three teams in the top 10 had four losses.

A year earlier, there was more dominance at the top. Syracuse was undefeated, as was No. 4 Wichita State. Second-ranked Arizona had lost once. Even teams on the edge of the top five were rolling. San Diego State was ranked fifth because it had lost once in 20 games. Villanova and Cincinnati were next, each with two losses.

Not that a current top ranking is assurance of anything come tournament time. Since 2008, only Kentucky in 2012 was ranked No. 1 a week into February and went on to win the national title. Such is the epic randomness of the tournament.

Maryland is now blessed with a break. Its recent four-game run from Jan. 28 through Feb. 6, when it played only two fewer games than the Washington Wizards, was its most impressive of the season. Two road wins in between two victories over ranked teams moved the Terrapins to 21-3 overall and 10-2 in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten.

“We can actually take a breath now,” coach Mark Turgeon said. “It’s been a grind. I don’t know if anybody’s had the four-game stretch that we’ve had, on the road and travel in such a short period of time. Hopefully, this time over the next week will give us a chance to get better.”

Stalled offense was a consistent nemesis in those four games. Against then-No. 3 Iowa, Maryland shot 33 percent in the second half and did not make a 3-pointer. The Terrapins shot 25 percent from behind the 3-point line against Ohio State. Against Nebraska, they turned the ball over 18 times. Then, on Saturday against Purdue, Jake Layman disappeared (zero field goals in 33 minutes), Melo Trimble could not shoot (2-for-12) and the bench provided two points. Maryland trailed with less than eight minutes to play in each game.
“We just keep figuring out ways to win,” Turgeon said.

The flipside, is the Terrapins survived the crunch of each. Robert Carter Jr. was effective in three of the four. Though Layman had little influence against Purdue, he was a force versus Ohio State. Their defense was a constant. Purdue shot 40.6 percent, Nebraska shot 31.8 percent, Ohio State was at 35.6 percent and Iowa — remember, ranked third in the country at the time — shot 42.9 percent. Those teams may as well have been wearing blindfolds.

“I’ve been doing this a long time,” Turgeon said. “I’ve had really, really good defensive teams. But, right now, we’re playing at a level I don’t know if I’ve seen as a head coach out of my teams. Our length helps us. … [We] keep saying our offense is going to play at a high level, at some point, but the good thing is, we continue to win and it hasn’t got there yet.”

Six conference games remain, two against ranked opponents, spread out in a much more reasonable schedule. There is time for Maryland to steady the offense. Even if it does not reach the effectiveness of its defense, that could well be enough for a deep dive into the tournament. Imperfect teams are well positioned in this imperfect season. Maryland is no different.

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