COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Red and white banners hang from the light poles that wind a cavalcade through Maryland’s red brick, Georgian-style campus.
Fear the Turtle, they say.
Until this season, it had been a few years since the Turtle inspired even slight nervousness. But two months into their first season in the Big Ten — a move billed as rough timing for a down program — the Terrapins have put together one of the more impressive nonconference slates in college basketball. And now, finally healthy, the 12th-ranked team in the country is on a fast rise.
The Terrapins, who last made an NCAA tournament in 2010 and a Sweet 16 in 2003, were expected to improve modestly. Instead, Maryland is 13-1 — its lone loss at home against No. 3 Virginia, while the Terps were without their best player — after plowing through nonconference play despite injury problems and a youthful rotation by knocking off three top-70 squads away from home, including No. 9 Iowa State in Kansas City, Mo.
Now, Maryland has charged into the league slate, winning its first Big Ten game Tuesday in double overtime over Michigan State in East Lansing’s Breslin Center, one of the country’s toughest venues. Up next: playing host to the Gophers on Saturday.
The strong start isn’t an accident.
“I’ve been doing this a long time, and this is probably one of the top two or three teams I’ve had, chemistry-wise,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “It’s early, but right now, pieces have kind of fit, personalities have fit and their work habits have been tremendous.”
But none of it has been scripted smoothly. After a 17-15 final season in the ACC that didn’t get the Terrapins a postseason invitation of any kind, a stunning five players transferred. It looked like Turgeon’s fourth season would be coached from the hot seat.
Then, an injury-laden start to this year — Michigan transfer Evan Smotrycz broke his left foot before the season, and fellow senior and star Dez Wells fractured his wrist during Maryland’s raucous victory over Iowa State — threatened any progress.
No matter, the Terps kept on rolling. Junior forward Jake Layman has been the catalyst, scoring 14.9 points per game on an efficient 54 percent shooting. Freshman point guard Melo Trimble has been better than advertised, confidently leading the team in points (15.9 per game), assists (3.1), steals (1.3) and free-throw percentage (89.8). The Terrapins defense doesn’t force anything, but it is fundamentally solid. The offense doesn’t have any obvious weaknesses. The recipe has worked.
Without Wells — averaging 15.3 points per game in seven games — Maryland strode into Stillwater, Okla., and pushed past scrappy Oklahoma State.
“I think it just says we have a lot of tough guys who are willing to listen to the game plan and really execute it at a high level,” Layman said. “Our team has definitely been battle-tested on the road, and I think we’re feeling very comfortable playing anywhere.”
Success is nothing new for a program that made the 2001 Final Four at the Metrodome, beat Indiana for the national championship the following year and has appeared in the Sweet 16 13 times. But after a quiet decade, Maryland seems to have taken perhaps even its own corner of the East Coast by surprise. Friday, College Park wasn’t abuzz with red, white, black and gold, although two local gear shops said more folks had asked about basketball jerseys — especially No. 5 for Trimble — than usual.
If the current trends keep up, all of that will change, soon.
Fear the Turtle? Big Ten teams are learning to at least respect it.