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How Close Is Maryland To Its First Big Ten Title?

The Terps have been rolling in recent weeks.

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since joining the Big Ten in 2014, the Maryland Terrapins have been known for two things: generally solid play and late season letdowns. Each year, it seems like the team is loaded with talent and potential, wins early, and fades late. It’s become a frustrating cycle for Terp fans that has led many to question Mark Turgeon and his coaching acumen.

Perhaps the best example of this dichotomy was the 2015-’16 season. The Terps entered the season as a prohibitive Big Ten favorite and were viewed as legitimate Final Four contenders. And early on, the team lived up to the hype, jumping out to a 15-1 start and beating a handful of quality opponents by solid margins.

Unfortuantely, that’s when the wheel’s came off.

While Maryland was ultimately able to get to 22-3 overall, the Terps finished the regular season by losing four of the team’s final six games and getting knocked out of the Big Ten Tournament by Michigan State. And even though Maryland made the Sweet 16, it failed to beat a single top 50 opponent in the postseason, besting South Dakota State and Hawaii in the NCAA Tournament. It all felt like a major let down for a team with so much potential.

And for each of the last five years, this has been the narrative. Maryland has the talent and the pieces to achieve some great things, but can’t get the job done when the going gets tough. It’s why some have placed Turgeon squarely on the hot seat entering this season, despite the fact he has a 199-96 (.675) overall record with the program and has made four NCAA Tournament appearances.

I wrote about this in my season preview, but I think a lot of Turgeon’s issues have resulted from his own success and some unfortunate let downs. The team has been good on a regular basis, it just doesn’t seem like a team can put it together in a single season. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

Since Turgeon took over in 2012, Maryland has undeniably been one of the nation’s better programs. The Terps have five postseason appearances in his eight seasons at the helm, including four NCAA Tournament trips and five seasons with at least 20 wins. Maryland has also finished 52nd or higher on KenPom seven times under Turgeon, including two finishes in the top 25.

Making the Big Dance and consistently winning 20 games a year isn’t enough for some programs, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t noteworthy, either. A lot of teams would kill for results like Maryland has experienced under Turgeon. Just look at the last five seasons alone, where the Terps have made four NCAA Tournaments, a Sweet 16, and had two seasons with at least 27 wins. The team hasn’t won the Big Ten or made the Final Four, but that’s not exactly a horrible run.

The problem, though, for Turgeon and the Terps are the expectations. Maryland fans may have accepted “ok” results early in his tenure, but a sense of restlessness has grown in the fan base. Last season’s 23-11 mark and trip to the Round of 32 was a nice reprieve, but Maryland has yet to put together the season fans have been waiting for.

Maybe this is a bit nuanced, but Turgeon’s run has reminded me a lot of Jim Harbaugh’s tenure with Michigan football a few states over. Generally speaking, Harbaugh’s teams have performed quite well. The Wolverines have had a pretty solid record and perform well at home. However, Harbaugh’s teams also haven’t had the moment to change perception.

The Terps enter this season in the same dilemmia. The team wins and plays well at home, but can’t seem to get over the hump. While this might sound oversimplified, fans haven’t had an accomplishment they’ve really been able to brag about. Turgeon isn’t putting up banners and bringing home trophies.

Just think about the frustration this way. Maryland went 55-16 over two seasons and the team had two wins over top 10 KenPom opponents, both coming in the regular season. That doesn’t make those seasons any worse. It just makes them feel a bit empty.

Naturally, the obvious followup question before the season (and now) is whether this would be the year Maryland finally had its breakthrough. The roster was extremely talented and well balanced. Could the team finally deliver?

Well, as of Friday night, the answer is yes.

After beating Illinois on the road on Friday night, Maryland now sits at 19-4 overall, 9-3 in Big Ten play, and atop the Big Ten standings. The Terps have also steadily risen up the KenPom ratings in recent weeks, now sitting at 8th nationally. The statistical site also currently projects the Terps to finish somewhere around 25 or 26 wins when all is said and done. Perhaps more importantly, the team has yet to lose a bad game and seems destined to finally deliver after so much frustration over the last few years.

But what will it take? And how close is this team to actually winning the Big Ten?

Let’s take a look.

The place to start, of course, is with the Big Ten standings. Following Sunday night’s results, here’s where things sit:

  • 9-3 Record - Maryland
  • 8-4 Record - Illinois, Penn State
  • 8-5 Record - Iowa, Michigan State, Rutgers
  • 7-6 Record - Purdue, Wisconsin
  • 6-7 Record - Minnesota

Obviously, that’s an encouraging sign for Maryland. We’re more than halfway through conference play and the Terps have a full game lead on the rest of the league. And with teams like Iowa and Michigan State slipping up recently, the number of teams within a game of Maryland has also decreased to just Illinois and Penn State. There’s nowhere better than first place and that’s where the Terps sit right now.

With all that said, it’s also important to remember we still have a lot of time left. Maryland still has eight regular season Big Ten games remaining and some of them look really tough. Here’s what the Terps have left below. I have included Maryland’s KenPom odds for which game with bolded games noting where Maryland projects to be an underdog:

  • 2/11 - Nebraska (95%)
  • 2/15 - at Michigan State (40%)
  • 2/18 - Northwestern (92%)
  • 2/23 - at Ohio State (43%)
  • 2/26 - at Minnesota (52%)
  • 2/29 - Michigan State (65%)
  • 3/3 - at Rutgers (53%)
  • 3/8 - Michigan (74%)

Just as with the Big Ten standings, that’s not exactly a bad situation for the Terps. The team is currently favored in six of its final eight games and has 65 percent odds (or better) in four of those games. And even if you don’t agree with KenPom’s ratings, that sets up a pretty good recipe for getting to at least 13 to 15 wins in conference play. It’s also why TRank currently gives Maryland 78.4 percent odds to grab at least a share of the Big Ten crown.

My gut says Maryland’s Big Ten title hopes will ride on those two games against the Spartans. Not because I think Michigan State will be the other team contending for the title, but because they look like one of the bigger wildcards on that remaining slate. Michigan State is clearly supremely talented, it’s just about what team shows up and how the Terps matchup against the Spartans. Figure out a way to top Sparty and the Big Ten title is there for the taking. Whether Maryland can finish the job remains to be seen.

All told, it’s been an exciting start to the season so far for the Terps. And the moment to turn the page is now here. This team is for real and is on the verge of winning its first ever Big Ten title. That is, if all goes according to plan. We’ll see if Turgeon and his group can avoid another late season letdown. My guess is they’ll get the job done.