Being on the bubble isn’t a fun experience. It’s something that looms over every game, week, and stretch of the season. Fans can’t stop talking about it. The media can’t stop talking about it. And the players and coaches end up thinking about it too.
For Maryland, this has been the narrative of the last two months.
Can the Terps make a run? Can Mark Turgeon and his staff find a way to make a cut? And if Maryland can make the field, will it have any chance to advance past the first round?
While things started off well, a series of unfortunate injuries along with some tight losses have derailed what many thought could be a top 25 team heading into this season. The Terps now sit at 17-11 overall and 6-9 in Big Ten play heading into the final three games of the regular season. Not exactly a comfortable spot for a team fighting for the postseason.
And Tuesday night might have been the toughest. After getting back on track against Northwestern on Saturday, Maryland hoped to score a huge road win against Nebraska. Unfortunately, Maryland fell short, dropping a 70-66 contest against the Huskers.
By any reasonable evaluation, Tuesday night’s loss was a massive one for Maryland’s postseason chances. Not only because it was a missed opportunity at a quality road win, but also because it came against another bubble team.
In a matter of 40 minutes, Nebraska flipped the script on Maryland and became the Big Ten’s best positioned bubble team heading into the final weeks of the regular season. Prior to tip-off, Maryland had projected to be that team. It was a tough development for a program that hasn’t gotten much encouraging news over the last two months.
The question now is an obvious one.
Can Maryland find its way back into the field?
Theoretically speaking, we all know the answer is yes. After all, Maryland could simply win the Big Ten Tournament and receive an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. Until a team loses in a conference tournament, they always, technically, have a chance.
But from a more realistic perspective, things look tough.
Let’s start with how things sit today. We know Maryland is 17-11 overall and 6-9 in Big Ten play, but how does that look in the advanced stats? Well, here’s a look at where the Terps sit as of Wednesday morning in the various statistical evaluations:
2/14 Maryland’s Statistical Profile:
- KenPom: 39
- RPI*: 62
- Sagarin: 33
- TRank: 37
What these measures leave us with is the picture of a team that’s good enough to make the NCAA Tournament from a play-by-play perspective, but one that lacks the resume to reflect its actual play on the court. Obviously, that’s not good news for the Terps.
The easy explanation for the deficit is Maryland’s underwhelming performance in close games. The Terps played tight games against Michigan State and Purdue at home, barely lost on a neutral court to St. Bonaventure, and fell by five points or less to Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Penn State, and Syracuse on the road.
Take a moment to think about that.
Had Maryland gotten just a little more luck and a little better play, it very well could have split the eight games mentioned above and been in comfortable NCAA Tournament position right now. If you don’t believe that statement, simply look at the KenPom ratings, where the Terps are 302nd nationally in KenPom’s luck rating.
But, alas, we all know that’s not how sports work.
The simple truth is that Maryland is in a tough spot. The advanced stats might like the Terps, but those RPI numbers are not pretty. As such, there’s little denying that Maryland needs to get to work if it’s going to somehow receive good news on Selection Sunday.
We all know the easiest way for Maryland to get the job done is simply to win. But that’s the easy answer. The more difficult question is how many games the Terps need to win moving forward to get on the right side of the bubble.
Right now, Maryland has three remaining regular season games. The team will also get at least one Big Ten Tournament game, which we will discuss a bit later. Anyway, here are the three remaining regular season games:
- 2/17 - Rutgers
- 2/19 - at Northwestern
- 2/24 - Michigan
Each of these three games are different, but incredibly important for Maryland’s profile this season. The Rutgers game is important because it poses a potential bad loss, the Northwestern game offers Maryland an opportunity at just its second Big Ten road game, and the Michigan game offers a chance at a quality win.
However, three wins in those games might not even be enough. The Terps would only get to 20-11 overall and 9-9 in Big Ten by winning out and would end up finishing somewhere around seventh in the league standings.
The tricky part, though, is that a seventh place finish would set Maryland up for an underwhelming first game against a team like Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament and a likely game against a team like Michigan State on Friday. That means the Terps would get a soft win to add to its resume and a likely loss the following day.
Maybe that’s not the most optimistic outlook, but that’s how things project going forward. Even if Maryland can win its remaining regular season games, it still probably needs a huge win in the Big Ten Tournament to have a chance. Whether fans want to admit it or not, that’s probably the remaining route for the Terps right now.
Fans will have to hope for some luck and maybe some help on the bubble.