Terps Soft Schedule Makes Them Hard to Evaluate

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — The Maryland men’s basketball team is one of just 10 teams with 20 wins already under its belt. They’re pacing the Big Ten at 8-1 in conference and have won all five of their league road games thus far. For all their troubles, they’re ranked … 17th in The Associated Press poll?

When it comes to the computer rankings, the numbers are even less respectful of the record Maryland has put together thus far. Jeff Sagarin’s rankings have the Terps 35th, right behind eight-loss Michigan and seven-loss Marquette. Ken Pomeroy has them 38th, behind nine-loss squads Wake Forest and Tennessee.

Meanwhile, ESPN basketball analyst Dan Dakitch told ESPN 980 Wednesday that he thinks Maryland is a Top 10 team, and the man in charge thinks they’re only getting better.

“I keep telling you this team’s got a big upside still, I really believe that,” head coach Mark Turgeon said at practice this week.

So how do we square the record and the eye test with the deeper numbers?

Statistically, the Terps are good at most things, but not particularly great at any one thing. Their offensive efficiency ranks 50th in the country; they’re 45th in defensive efficiency.

Last year’s team was a game worse at this point, 19-3 instead of 20-2. But last year’s edition ranked 24th in offensive efficiency and 32nd in defensive efficiency by season’s end. By national rank, they were a much better free throw shooting team (8th vs. 142nd), two-point shooting team (7th vs. 118th) and shot-blocking team (84th vs. 271st). This year’s squad has the edge in three-point shooting (45th vs. 103rd) and offensive rebounding percentage (99th vs. 187th), but not enough to cover all the difference.

Maryland has also been extremely good in close games. The Terps are now 10-1 in games decided by six points or less. Much like when the Baltimore Orioles went a statistically improbable 29-9 in one-run games in 2012, there are different answers as to why this could be. On one end, a veteran point guard like Melo Trimble (or bullpen like Baltimore’s) helps explain a team that finishes close games well. On the other hand, there’s some measure of luck involved, something Pomeroy accounts for in his model, with Maryland rating as the 17th luckiest of 351 Division I teams.

Turgeon addressed the issue, asking hypothetically, “Have we won a lot of close road games that could have gone the other way in two or three of those road games?”

Of course, the Terps were 8-3 last year in the regular season in games decided by six or fewer points. They beat a pair of double-digit NCAA Tournament teams to reach the Sweet 16, but were run out of the gym by Kansas.

It’s only the first week of February, so the common wisdom is that by the time the conference slate is complete, things will play out as they need to in order to square up how good Maryland actually is. There’s just one issue with that — this year’s schedule provides precious few high quality games compared to a normal Big Ten slate.

Conference road wins are always precious, but Tuesday’s victory in Columbus lacks the weight it may have carried in past years. That’s what happens when the Buckeyes are just 13-10, including a home loss to 6-13 Conference USA bottom-feeder Florida Atlantic back in December. None of the teams Maryland has beaten on the road this year has a winning record in conference (including Georgetown).

The biggest home win of the season so far came over then-No. 25 Indiana. The Hoosiers are now just 15-8, 5-5 in conference, needing three overtimes against a mediocre Penn State team just to get there.

The way it has shaken out this year, there are only two Top-20 opponents (per KenPom.com) on the schedule: This Saturday against No. 23 Purdue and in two weeks at No. 10 Wisconsin. That adds extra weight to those contests — if Maryland doesn’t win them, they could conceivably be a nearly 30-win team entering the NCAA Tournament without a Top-20 win.

“I don’t know, I don’t pay attention (to the rankings),” said Turgeon. “It is what it is. You just have to worry about yourself.”

The Terps will have their biggest chance thus far to prove their doubters — and the computers — wrong this weekend.

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