COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Five months ago, the Maryland men’s basketball team was picked to finish 10th in its first Big Ten Conference season and considered by many to be a long shot to make the NCAA tournament.
Nebraska, coming off the school’s first NCAA tournament appearance in 16 years, was predicted to finish fourth and thought to be one of the league’s rising powers.
The Terps and Cornhuskers are headed in much different directions ahead of their regular-season finale Sunday night at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Ranked No. 10 in the country and having locked up second place in the Big Ten, Maryland (25-5, 13-4) has won six consecutive games and been one of the nation’s biggest surprises. Losers of seven in a row, Nebraska (13-16, 5-12) has been one of the country’s biggest underachievers.
Not that the Terps are satisfied with how things have turned out. With a win, they can finish with a winning road record in the Big Ten and bolster their case for a high seed in what will be Maryland’s first NCAA tournament appearance in five years and first under fourth-year coach Mark Turgeon.
The Terps will be seeded behind only regular-season champion Wisconsin in next week’s Big Ten tournament at Chicago’s United Center, and are widely projected as a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament field.
“We talked about, when this week started, [how] the [NCAA tournament] selection committee likes road wins. We’ve got a chance to get two,” said Turgeon, whose Terps beat Rutgers, 60-50, on Tuesday night in Piscataway, New Jersey. “You’re always trying to win as many games as you can and be as good a team as you can.”
A victory against the Cornhuskers would give Turgeon a single-season record for wins at Maryland, where he won 25 in his first season, and equal the most he has had in his 17-year head coaching career. His 2006-07 Wichita State team went 26-9 and reached the Sweet 16, the furthest any of Turgeon’s teams has advanced.
Considering the preseason expectations for the Terps and Cornhuskers, Turgeon understands the fleeting nature of success in high-major basketball. All he has to do is look at how far Nebraska, currently 12th in the 14-team league, has fallen.
“I’m so driven on everything that I do. This is fun. This is great. Let’s see where this year goes, but we’re going to go into next year trying to figure out how to be good again,” Turgeon said after practice in College Park on Friday. “There’s very few Kansases, Dukes, [North] Carolinas, teams that win at a top-10 level every year.
“I’d like to think, if you look at my history, we’ve been pretty consistent throughout. Hopefully, this is the start of some consistency at a high level. We’ll see. In today’s game, it’s hard to do that. But I don’t think about Nebraska being good every year. I don’t think they were 25-5 [last year], were they?”
A year ago, Nebraska overcame an 0-4 start in the Big Ten and won nine of its last 10 regular-season games to earn a first-round bye in the Big Ten tournament. It lost to Ohio State in the quarterfinals and to Baylor in its NCAA tournament opener, finishing 19-11 overall.
Expected to push perennial powers Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan this season, the Cornhuskers were 4-3 in the league after beating the Spartans at home Jan. 24. They have won just once since. Their last home game was a 74-46 loss to Iowa on Feb. 22.
Third-year coach Tim Miles received national attention that night for his postgame news conference, in which he questioned his team’s work ethic and said he had banned his players from a plush locker room that features heated towel bars and iPod plug-ins in the showers, a smoothie bar and a pool table.
“You never want to throw your players under the bus, but that was just beyond disappointing,” Miles said at the time. “That’s not what we represent. … I thought we showed a softness and a lack of leadership, and a lack of willingness to listen to leadership.”
Not only did Miles say he had put “chains on the doors locking it from the outside until further notice,” he reportedly had team managers empty each player’s locker and put the belongings in the hallway.
Asked where his players would shower that night, Miles said: “Good luck. They’re creative.”
A team spokesman said Friday that the ban on the team’s locker room is still in place.
While it’s not clear whether Miles’ message has gotten through — Nebraska lost at Ohio State, 81-57, four days after the lockout and at Illinois, 69-57, on Wednesday — Maryland senior forward Jon Graham said Friday that he expects a different Cornhuskers team to show up for Senior Night.
“I’m expecting them to come out with fire and be ready to play,” Graham said. “These guys aren’t going to lay down for us just because we’re ranked high and we’re Maryland. We’ve got to be ready to play, and we have to match their intensity going in.”
The edge the Terps have played with since preseason is still there, according to senior transfer Richaud Pack.
“It stays with us. We always talk about it, that nobody believed in us, and that’s why we’re so close [as a team], because all we had was us early in the season,” Pack said. “We believed in ourselves before other people did.”
It has not always been evident on the road. Pack said the Terps have been more comfortable and confident playing as a ranked team, despite some shaky moments late in recent wins at Penn State and Rutgers.
“I think we had to make major adjustments, just getting used to teams playing as hard as they were playing against us. Because it’s different when you’re being hunted rather than when you’re the hunter, not playing as loose as we were playing earlier in the season,” Pack said.
This article was written by Don Markus from The Baltimore Sun and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.