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Maryland enters critical stretch as it hovers on NCAA tournament bubble

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The Maryland men’s basketball team has fallen to near the bottom of the Big Ten standings. The Terrapins have lost all five of their conference games on the road. Slow starts, poor three-point shooting and a patchwork roster that Coach Kevin Willard built quickly in the offseason give reason to temper expectations.

Yet the Terps have more hope than their 3-5 Big Ten record suggests. Maryland begins a long-awaited stretch with three consecutive games at home — starting Wednesday against Wisconsin (4-4 in the Big Ten), followed by matchups with Nebraska (3-6) and Indiana (4-4). When the Terps return to the road Feb. 4, they’ll face Minnesota (1-7), the conference’s last-place team.

For Maryland, that’s four straight games against unranked opponents and a chance to assemble a winning streak. If the Terps finish this easier stretch and still have a losing record in conference play, then it would be fair to wonder if their NCAA tournament hopes are slipping away. But not yet. Maryland is still — albeit barely — included in the field of most tournament projections.

After slow start, Terps measure up to Zach Edey and Purdue but fall just short

Willard relays that information to his players — bracketology, analytics, strength-of-schedule metrics and so on. That keeps them from believing a single loss could be detrimental to their season.

“Kids don’t see big picture,” Willard said. “So it’s an adult’s job to inform them and educate them and try to give them the best picture possible. I’ve always been very, very open with my teams about where we are and what we have ahead of us.”

The Terps started Willard’s debut season 8-0, highlighted by a marquee win over Illinois in the conference opener, and that inflated optimism around the program. Since then, Maryland has won just two of nine games against major-conference opponents.

Willard has described the early-season schedule as “extremely brutal.” For instance, he said: “When we got blown out [by] UCLA, that was my fault. That wasn’t the team’s fault. That was bad scheduling.” The home game against the now-No. 8 Bruins, an 87-60 loss in mid-December, came at the end of a stretch that also included a pair of Big Ten games, then a trip to New York to play now-No. 4 Tennessee. When Maryland dived back into the conference slate in January, the Terps faced a six-game spell with four road contests.

Willard maintains a long-term perspective, similar to how he views his effort to build the program not only for this season but for the future. Willard can see how the schedule began with a difficult stretch and will soon ease, presenting opportunities for the Terps to pad their résumé.

“You can’t look at the season and sit there and say: ‘Well, we’ve played four really, really tough road games, and we’ve struggled. And we’re a bad team now,’ ” Willard said before the Terps traveled to Purdue and picked up their fifth Big Ten road loss.

The Big Ten standings are congested. All the teams in the league — except Purdue (8-1), which is the top-ranked team in the nation, Rutgers (6-3) and Minnesota — have between three and five wins. The Terps, for now, are at the bottom end of that swarm of teams. They’re joined by Ohio State and Nebraska with three conference wins. But there’s a clear path for Maryland to climb closer to the middle of the Big Ten standings — and that would probably be enough for an NCAA tournament berth.

In the past two seasons, all Big Ten teams with at least nine conference wins earned an NCAA tournament bid. Maryland should also get a boost from its nonconference victories over No. 20 Miami and Saint Louis (6-1 and tied for first in the Atlantic 10). Willard said recently he believes the Terps are in a “great spot,” referencing the school’s ranking in the NET (No. 45), Ken Pomeroy’s ratings (No. 39) and tournament projections.

Since Michigan dominated the Terps in a blowout on New Year’s Day, Maryland has shown some promise. Jahmir Young, a point guard transfer from Charlotte, has generated several standout performances as he has become more comfortable in the Big Ten, and sophomore forward Julian Reese has steadily improved. When the Terps rebounded to beat the Wolverines last week, Reese helped contain star center Hunter Dickinson, and he had a strong outing against 7-foot-4 Zach Edey in the loss at Purdue. Maryland nearly knocked off the Boilermakers — a 58-55 defeat that offered some hope, given Reese’s performance, an intense second-half rally and the stature of the opponent.

So even with the bleak conference record, “I feel like our team’s confidence is pretty high,” Reese said. He added: “Losing at Michigan kind of was that wake-up call we needed.”

The Terps have had continued trouble with three-point shooting. Their clip of 30.1 percent ranks 322nd of 352 Division I teams. Maryland has tried to adapt by attempting fewer — 18.7 per game in January compared with 23.1 in the first two months of the season — and emphasizing the importance of getting in the paint.

How does a shooter break out of a slump? Maryland’s Don Carey is trying.

Sluggish starts, particularly on the road — a 27-4 deficit at Michigan, a 15-4 hole at Rutgers, a 16-point margin late in the first half at Iowa and a 25-9 start at Purdue — have forced comeback efforts, all unsuccessful. The players have struggled with nerves early in road games, but after the Purdue loss, Willard said their comfort level is “definitely getting there.” In conference play, the Terps are 3-0 at home but 0-5 away from Xfinity Center.

“We’ve just got to figure it out on the road,” Young said. “We handle business at home. But just getting ourselves in a hole in the first half is what’s getting us in trouble. We’re right there.”

Maryland won’t have to worry about that until next month. First, the Terps have these three home games — a chance to quell concerns and position themselves firmly in the NCAA tournament picture.

“Obviously, we would have loved to beat Purdue the other night,” Willard said. “But some people can be 3-5 and be down. We’re 3-5, and we feel pretty good where we are.”

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