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Maryland basketball falls behind in the Big Ten title race

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Terrapins drop a game behind Purdue, Wisconsin in the Big Ten.

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Wisconsin Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Maryland had a big opportunity ahead of it on Sunday. The Terrapins traveled to Madison for a chance to take down Wisconsin and pull into a tie with Purdue atop the Big Ten Conference standings. For a half it looked like they would do just that, but the Terrapins gave up 44 second-half points to a struggling Wisconsin team and Maryland fell into third place in the conference.

The Terrapins aren’t out of the picture by any means. Purdue (22-5, 11-3), Wisconsin (22-5, 11-3) and Maryland (22-5, 10-4) are about as close as you can get at this point of the season and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see any of those teams win the conference title. The remaining schedules are fairly even. Purdue plays three of its final four games on the road, including a trip to fourth-place Northwestern (20-7, 9-5) on the final day of the regular season. Wisconsin plays back-to-back games at Ohio State (15-13, 5-10) and Michigan (17-10, 7-7) before capping off the regular season by hosting Iowa (14-13, 6-8) and Minnesota (20-7, 8-6). The Terrapins may have the easiest schedule of the bunch, as three of their last four games are in College Park, where they are 12-3 this season. Maryland’s lone road game is a trip to Rutgers (13-15, 2-13), which sits in last place in the Big Ten by three games.

If the Terrapins can go unbeaten the rest of the way, they’ll have a great shot of earning at least a share of the conference championship. It’s almost a certainty that either Wisconsin and Purdue will lose at least one game, and fairly likely that the Big Ten champion ends up with four losses.

For Maryland to win the title, the Terrapins will have to get back to where they were in the middle of the year after losing three of their last five games. That isn’t exactly cause for alarm, as two of those losses came to Purdue and Wisconsin, whereas Maryland didn’t play either of the Big Ten leaders over the first month of the conference season. The Terrapins have recorded one key win over the last two weeks, traveling to Northwestern on Wednesday and earning a 74-64 win over the Wildcats.

While the sky isn’t falling on Maryland, there are a few holes that have been exposed during the toughest stretch of its schedule. One hole that won’t be solved is that the Terrapins don’t quite have the level of talent that Purdue and Wisconsin have, at least not the same level of developed talent. The young Terps are clearly led by junior point guard Melo Trimble, one of the best players in the Big Ten the last three years. But behind Trimble, the Terrapins are relying on a bunch of freshman who are in the midst of their first Big Ten race.

That disparity was apparent against Wisconsin, as Maryland appeared to rely too much on Trimble while Wisconsin rode a veteran lineup in the second half. Trimble was great, scoring a game-high 27 points on 9-of-17 shooting, including 4-of-7 from behind the arc, while adding five rebounds and three steals. The rest of the Terrapins had a tough time. The trio of freshman starters, Justin Jackson, Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter, combined to shoot 4-of-16 from the field and score 16 points. Damonte Dodd, the fifth starter, went scoreless with two rebounds and one block in 14 minutes due to foul trouble. Michael Cekovsky was productive off the bench, finishing with 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting, but he can’t create on his own, getting most of his buckets when Trimble collapsed the defense and dumped it to Cekovsky inside.

As the game went on, it looked like the Terrapins realized that Trimble was the only guy who had it going, and put too much on his shoulders. Trimble finished with four of Maryland’s 13 turnovers as the Wisconsin defense made it tough down the stretch. The Terrapins are at their best when the young guys are stretching the floor. But outside of Trimble, Maryland shot just 4-of-11 from behind the arc on Saturday. Huerter hit a couple 3-pointers early before slowing down and finishing 2-of-4 on the day. Maryland coach Mark Turgeon also sat Trimble for the final 4:32 against Wisconsin, but it wasn’t a benching as much as deciding to rest Trimble in a game that got away from them.

Another issue is that Maryland only has two true big guys in Dodd and Cekovsky. With Dodd playing only 14 minutes on Saturday, the Terrapins had a tough time rebounding, giving up 18 offensive boards and being out rebounded 44-27 by the Badgers. The wing players are going to have to dig down against Minnesota, which is grabbing 40.1 rebounds per game and has a number of guys who attack the glass.

If the Terrapins can get a couple of those things ironed out in the next four games, they’ll finish right up there in the Big Ten. And whether they finish first, second, third or even fourth, Maryland will have put together a better year than was expected of them after the mass exodus of talent following last year’s Sweet 16 season.