Mark Turgeon has his Maryland team near the top of the Big Ten standings, sitting at 20-4 on the season. Last night, the 21st ranked Terps lost at Penn State, falling two games behind first place in the conference. Even with that loss, which came on the road in Big Ten play mind you, the Terps have yet to receive national attention as a real Final Four or championship contender. A team that started 20-2 never cracked the top 15 in the polls.
Last season’s Terrapins were ranked as high as #2 in the nation and reached the Sweet Sixteen. That team bathed in the spotlight for most of the season, playing many of their games in prime TV slots and garnering oodles of national attention. On today’s date last season, Maryland was 21-3, just one game better by record than this season, with endlessly more attention paid to them.
So what gives?
Back-to-back losses may have the pollsters and so-called experts scoffing “I told you so” or motivate Maryland to make a run at the Big 12 crown. Let’s look at what has held the Terps back, and decide if those are fatal flaws or obstacles they can overcome.
Decrease in Talent
Last season’s team caught the eyes of the college basketball audience not just with a win-loss record, but with the talent they displayed on the floor. After the season four critical cogs of last year’s Terps left the program as graduates or early entrants to the professional ranks. Today, all four of those players are being paid to play basketball. Jake Layman is a Portland Trailblazer, Diamond Stone and Rasheed Sulaimon are in the NBA D-League, and Robert Carter is playing in the top league in Italy. Though those aren’t flashy names and none of them are posting guady stats in the NBA, any college coach will tell you that losing players able to legitimately play professionally at any level takes a serious toll on a team.
Maryland has done well for itself in trying to replace the production of those players will a heap of freshman, yet there is an obvious gap in talent. The Terps are the nation’s 319th most experienced team, with three freshman starting and playing more than 68 percent of available minutes.
The young Terps have had the pleasure of facing a much easier schedule, compared to that of the 2015-16 team. That team played the nation’s 37th toughest overall schedule, including the 108th ranked non-conference (per KenPom). This year’s team has played the nation’s 52nd ranked schedule, with a frosting-covered 210th ranked non-conference schedule. The Terps did not play a game on their opponent’s campus until their 16th game on January 7. They answered the bell, winning five straight road games in conference before losing at Penn State. Further tests now lie ahead, with a mid-February road trip to Northwestern and Wisconsin and home dates with Minnesota and Michigan State.
Even with a Big Ten slate ahead of them, the Terrapins will still face a relatively easy road. In a lucky scheduling quirk, Maryland avoids road games at Purdue, Indiana, and Michigan State this season.
The Terps have found more luck beyond their soft Big Ten schedule. We’ll turn here to college basketball’s foremost analytics expert, Ken Pomeroy. His ranking formula does not factor in luck (how could it?), but he has attempted to approximate some level of unexpected fortune. His site tracks not just the games won and lost, but the record a team would be expected to have, based on their offense and defensive successes and failures. A team with a better record than their play suggests would be considered lucky. Likewise, a team having played well, but posted a record worst than one they’d be expected to have based on their play would be unlucky.
This season, Pomeroy’s findings peg Maryland as the 55th luckiest team in the nation, after being the 129th luckiest last season. Both of these numbers are directly related to Maryland’s inordinately high record in close games. Close games signal you haven’t outplayed your opponent by much, and winning more than your fair share of close ones would be considered lucky. Pomeroy wrote about Maryland’s luck, noting an oft-cited stat: the Terps are 30-8 in their last 38 games decided by six points or less. When push comes to shove, Maryland is more likely to be lucky than clutch. It’s helped the Terps record this season, but could lead to a rude awakening when they regress back to the mean.
Less Efficient Play by Melo Trimble
Listing last year’s Terrapin team, one name felt missing from that list. Melo Trimble was as important as Stone, Layman, Carter, or Sulaimon for Maryland last season, yet returned for Turgeon this year. It almost feels like the producers of a movie optioned the rights into a TV series, but only one actor and character actually made the jump from cinema to small screen (looking at you Buddy Garrity and Mrs. Coach…). Trimble is back and carrying even more of the load for Maryland. He’s shooting and scoring more, but not as efficiently as he did last season. His assist rate and offensive rating have ticked downward, with turnovers increasing by .5 per game. Flanked by freshman, Trimble is the heartbeat of this Maryland team. When he is creating for others (two of his freshman teammates are firing better than 40% from outside), Maryland’s offense looks crisp and clean. But when Trimble tries to force shots, he gets himself, and his team, into trouble.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to SALTMoney.org, Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. If you have any suggestions, tips, ideas, or questions, email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.