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NCAA Tournament Hopes Hanging In Balance For Frustrated Terps

January 29, 2018
Four of the Maryland men's basketball team's six Big Ten losses have come by six points or fewer, and the last three -- a one-point loss at Michigan Jan. 15, a three-point loss at Indiana Jan. 22 and a 74-68 loss to Michigan State Jan. 28 -- have been particularly damaging to Maryland's NCAA Tournament resume.

As has been the case during each of the Terps' losses this year -- outside of blowout losses at Michigan State Jan. 4 and Ohio State Jan. 11 -- Maryland had a chance to win in crunch time against the Spartans. Senior guard Jared Nickens followed his own 3-point miss with a layup that cut the Terps' deficit to 63-61 with 1:40 left.

Maryland then forced a miss by Michigan State sophomore guard Miles Bridges on the other end, but guard Joshua Langford pulled down an offensive rebound to re-set the Spartans' offense. Sophomore guard Cassius Winston, who was eventually isolated at the top of the key with Terps sophomore guard Anthony Cowan Jr., began to drive toward the hoop and was grabbed by Cowan. Winston sank both free throws for a 65-61 lead with 52 seconds left. With Maryland badly needing a basket during its next possession, Cowan drove to the rim but was met by freshman forward Jaren Jackson Jr., who swatted away the Terps' final hopes.

Once more, Maryland's opponent came up with a couple more plays at the end to win a tight contest; this time, it was Langford's offensive rebound and Jackson's block. At Indiana, it was Juwan Morgan's put-back.  At Michigan, it was Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman's last-gasp catch-and-drive.  

The Terps are 3-6 in games decided by six points or fewer after going 30-8 in such contests the prior three seasons.

"It's frustrating because it seems like we just keep not making the right plays down the stretch," said sophomore guard Kevin Huerter, who scored a team-high 17 points Jan. 28. "We're just not making the little plays, and that's why we keep losing close games at the end. That's why it's just getting frustrating because we're making the same mistakes."

Maryland played as well as it could've hoped in the first half, as a Nickens corner three sent the Terps to the locker room up, 37-24. Maryland made five 3-pointers in the half, with Huerter, Nickens and redshirt junior guard Dion Wiley all contributing. The Terps scored the first eight points of the game, sending Xfinity Center into its loudest frenzy of the season.

But the Terps' best work in the half came on the defensive end, holding Michigan State to 9-of-33 shooting and future lottery picks Miles Bridges and Jackson to a combined nine points. No matter if Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon played small and put freshman guard Darryl Morsell on Jackson or played big with freshman forward Bruno Fernando on Jackson, the Terps executed their switches well, contested every shot and held their own on the boards against the bigger Spartans.

Michigan State, however, opened the second half on a 20-4 run -- "they came out and hit us between the eyes," Turgeon said -- with two threes by Jackson providing the ignition to the stretch. The Spartans nursed a single-digit lead for the balance of the game, holding the Terps to 31 points in the second half and never allowing Huerter or Cowan to get into rhythm.

Had the Terps stacked their first-half performance with a similar performance in the second half, they'd have a signature win in their back pocket heading into the final month of the season. Instead, Maryland is 4-6 in the Big Ten and likely on the wrong side of the bubble right now, with precious few opportunities remaining to impress. Maryland has eight regular-season contests remaining; games at Purdue Jan. 31 and Nebraska Feb. 13 and a home game against Michigan Feb. 24 are the best chances to boost its resume.

"I don't care about that. All I care about is my guys, and I want to get better," Turgeon said. "We're getting better. I'm having fun coaching them. We've practiced really well. I want to continue to do that, see where it leads us. I'm not caught up in, 'Do we have to win this game to be in that tournament?' That doesn't matter to me. What matters is that we play our best basketball and the rest will take care of itself. I don't pay attention. I've had teams in situations like this that got it done. If I can just get us to where I want to get us, we'll have a chance."

Maryland's biggest issue in its loss to Michigan State, according to Turgeon, was allowing the Spartans to grab 19 offensive rebounds, with Langford's being the biggest one. Turgeon credited Winston's ability to penetrate from the guard spot and get the Terps out of position, leaving them vulnerable on the backboards. The Spartans scored 16 second-chance points overall.

It was the first time Maryland badly missed the rebounding ability of sophomore forward Justin Jackson, whose absence has been felt more with his ability to check skilled big men on the defensive end. The Terps are second in the Big Ten in rebounding margin without Jackson's services for much of the year, but their lack of depth meant it was a challenge to go toe-to-toe on the boards with Michigan State, the Big Ten's best rebounding team.

"How many ever guys we have right now, that's who we've got to win with, and we're good enough to win with the people we have right now," Huerter said. "We've got to stop talking about the guys that are hurt."

It won't get any easier, as the Terps next travel to West Lafayette, Ind., to take on No. 3 Purdue Jan. 31. The Boilermakers, who start four seniors, are third in the country in offensive efficiency, per kenpom.com, a college basketball analytics site, and may be the most polished offensive team in the nation. The Boilermakers score 84.6 points a game, shoot 43.6 percent from 3-point range and score inside with efficient center Isaac Haas.

Having lost four of its past five games, the next month -- and the Big Ten tournament -- will have to be kind to the Terps if they want to go dancing.  

"It's frustrating," said Nickens, who scored 10 points Jan. 28. "We're just trying to learn from it all. We're trying to make a run going into February and still try to make the NCAA Tournament."

Follow Luke on Twitter @luke_jackson10 

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox