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What should we make of Maryland?

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I challenge you to find a team that, this season, is more fascinatingly confusing than the No. 17 Maryland Terrapins.

The Terps are 20-2 on the season, their 8-1 Big Ten record putting them in a tie for first place in the league with No. 10 Wisconsin, a game ahead of No. 25 Northwestern and two games in front of No. 23 Purdue. They’re undefeated on the road, which, with three freshmen starters, is almost as impressive as their 9-1 record in games decided by six points or less.

But they’re also a team that no one has paid much, if any, attention to this season. Part of that is because of the disappointment that was 2015-16, a year where Maryland entered the year as a preseason national title favorite and ended the year as a No. 5 seed getting picked off by Kansas in the Sweet 16. Part of it is because the youth on the roster this year led to depressed expectations; there wasn’t much hype coming out of College Park in October.

But perhaps the biggest part of it is that the Terps are the only team in the top 25 that has yet to play a team that was, at the time they played, or is, currently, ranked.

Think about it like this: Every team ranked above Maryland this week has played at least one game that has drawn the collective eyeballs of the college basketball world. With the exception of Northwestern, the same can be said for every team ranked below them. Saint Mary’s had their showdown with Gonzaga. Cincinnati played SMU on ESPN and squared off with Xavier in the Crosstown Shootout. Butler beat then-No. 1 Villanova. Creighton hosted then-No. 1 Villanova as a top ten team. Florida squared off with Duke at Madison Square Garden.

Maryland?

They’ve yet to play a game that we had to watch. I had a friend – who lives in DC, who played college basketball, whose father is a Maryland fan, who was in attendance for the Miracle Minute in 2001 – ask me yesterday how it was possible that the Terps could be 20-2 and he couldn’t name a player in the program other than Melo Trimble.

I’m sure he’s far from the only college basketball fan that thinks Justin Jackson is just a player on North Carolina or struggles to pronounce Kevin Huerter’s last name.

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 26:  Melo Trimble #2 of the Maryland Terrapins puts in a layup over D.J. Johnson #4 of the Kansas State Wildcats in the closing seconds as they win the championship game of the Barclays Center Classic 69-68 at Barclays Center on November 26, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Melo Trimble (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

SO WHAT MAKES MARYLAND SO INTERESTING?

Maryland is a team that sits at the crossroads of a pair of dueling narratives.

Is that 9-1 record in close games an example of how clutch they are, or is it simply a result of being lucky?

There is a large segment of the sports world that does not believe that it is possible to be ‘clutch’, that players don’t simply become better shooters – or passers, or pitchers, or goal scorers – simply because it is late in the game. There are smart people with a much better understanding of math that can roll out numbers that will confirm this. There are also smart people that can provide data on why certain players are, in fact, ‘clutch’. That debate exists, and while it’s not a debate that I want to dive into here, it’s worth noting because Maryland – specifically Melo Trimble – is either the most clutch or the luckiest player in college basketball during his time with Maryland.

Maryland is 9-1 in games decided by six points or less this season, and in four of those nine games, Trimble has scored the game-winning points in the final 30 seconds. That doesn’t count Tuesday night’s game at Ohio State, where Trimble scored Maryland’s final seven points to hold off a late charge from the Buckeyes.

Perhaps more impressive is the fact that Trimble is now 29-6 in games decided by six points or less in his three seasons in College Park.

This tells us two things:

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1. The Terps have a habit of playing close games. For example, they’re on a seven-game winning streak in the Big Ten right now, and only one of those games – a 12-point home win against Rutgers – was decided by double-figures.

2. It’s not a fluke that Maryland is winning those close games. It’s because they have Trimble. I don’t care what the math says, when you win 29 out of 35 two-possession games over a three-year span with three totally different supporting casts, it’s not by accident. Trimble is college basketball’s best closer.

And that brings us to the second coming-together of the narratives: results-based metrics vs. predictive metrics. Maryland is currently sitting at 18th in the RPI, a number that all-but locks them into the NCAA tournament at what should be a pretty good seed. The RPI’s formula, however, doesn’t factor in margin of victory – meaning that Maryland’s six-point win over American goes down as a win, not a game against a bad team they almost lost. KenPom’s formula does, and Maryland is ranked 39th on KenPom, a number that would put them squarely on the bubble given the fact that they don’t have many good wins.

As it stands, Maryland has just one RPI top 25 win and three total RPI top 50 wins. It’s not crazy to think that, come Selection Sunday, none of those three wins – at Minnesota, Kansas State, Oklahoma State – will be over NCAA tournament teams.

Still, 20-2 says a lot, which is why we can’t simply judge them on their tournament profile.

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 25:  Anthony Cowan #0 and Justin Jackson #21 of the Maryland Terrapins celebrate against the Richmond Spiders in the first half during the Barclays Center Classic at Barclays Center on November 25, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Anthony Cowan and Justin Jackson (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

SO WHAT MAKES THEM GOOD?

It starts with Melo Trimble, who has long been rated as one of the country’s elite point guard but who has been asked to play off the ball this season with the addition of Anthony Cowan, a star freshman point guard from Bowie, Maryland.

And while Cowan, who is the team’s third-leading scorer and leader in assists, has been terrific this season, he hasn’t even been the best freshmen on the Terps. That title belongs to Justin Jackson, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward from Canada by way of Findlay Prep in Las Vegas, Jackson is a player that may end up playing himself right into the NBA Draft. His physical profile is what NBA teams salivate over. He’s 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, he can play the three and guard the four, he has range out of the three-point line. In his last two games, Jackson is averaged 25.0 points and 11.0 boards while shooting 9-for-12 from beyond the arc.

That production probably isn’t sustainable, but it is a glimpse into just what he is capable of doing.

Kevin Huerter, a sharpshooting 6-foot-7 freshman from Upstate New York, got off to a bit of a slow start this season but, in conference play, is shooting a crisp 46 percent from beyond the arc while firing up 5.5 triples a night. He had 26 points and seven threes against Nebraska. He had 19 points and five threes against Minnesota. Perhaps most importantly, he’s proven as a big shot maker and a guy that can be relied upon to make a play defensively. Ask Georgetown. He had the game-saving block in Maryland’s comeback win.

Throw in a quartet of bigs, led by defensive stopper Damonte Dodd and his more offensive-minded counterpart Michal Cekovsky (think the College Park version of Steven Adams and Enes Kanter), that anchor a lineup that has thrived playing small-ball as well as snipers off the bench in Dion Wiley and Jared Nickens, and Mark Turgeon has himself a good, balanced roster, one that is still getting better.

That’s the beauty of having a roster full of freshmen.

As the cliché, come March, freshmen are sophomores, and the best thing about sophomores is that they’re better than they were as freshmen.

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 25:  Kevin Huerter #4 of the Maryland Terrapins blocks T.J. Cline #10 of the Richmond Spiders in the second half during the Barclays Center Classic at Barclays Center on November 25, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Kevin Huerter (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

So this is where we are with this team.

Their all-american has a nasty habit of struggling for the first 30 minutes of a game before going into takeover mode down the stretch.

Their freshmen have been inconsistent but, individually, good enough to carry the team for stretches, or an entire half, sometimes even a full game.

They haven’t played anyone, let alone beaten anyone, and they play everyone close, regardless of how good the opponent is, but they almost always win those close games.

And the final point is what makes Saturday so important.

No. 17 Maryland will host No. 23 Purdue. It’s the best team that the Terps have played this season. It’s the chance for them to get a quality win on their résumé. And, frankly, it’s a chance for them to prove to the nation that they are the real deal. They play the first game of the day, on ESPN, in a timeslot where they will compete with Duke hosting a bad Pitt team and boring Virginia playing on the road against a mediocre version of Syracuse.

If the Terps plan on making a statement this season, this is the time to do it.

Thursday’s Three Things To Know: Nebraska, Saint Mary’s land big upsets

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Thursday nights are slow in the college basketball world, but that doesn’t me we don’t have stuff to talk about.

Here are the three things you need to know about.

1. TIM MILES IS WELL ON HIS WAY TO SAVING HIS JOB

One of the most underdiscussed storylines of the college basketball season to date is that the coaches that entered the year on the hot seat are winning.

Clemson’s Brad Brownell might get back to the NCAA tournament. Bruce Pearl has made people at Auburn forget – briefly – about the internal investigation into the FBI allegations against the program. Even Jim Christian looks like he’s going to force BC to give him more time.

But Tim Miles might be the best example of this. After a flurry of transfers in the offseason and a change in athletic director, things looked pretty bleak for Miles. But he now has his Nebraska team sitting in a position where they are at least in the conversation for the bubble at beating No. 23 Michigan at home by 20 points.

The Huskers are not quite there yet. Monday’s game at No. 22 Ohio State is huge because it is the last ranked team on Nebraska’s schedule.

But that’s a ways off.

As of now, Nebraska fans can enjoy the fact that they’re 14-7 on the season and 5-3 in the Big Ten.

2. SAINT MARY’S WON THE MOST IMPORTANT GAME OF THEIR SEASON

Jock Landale went off for 26 points, 12 boards and three assists as Saint Mary’s extended their winning streak to 13 games and put themselves in a position where making a run at an NCAA tournament bid looks likely.

Our Travis Hines has a column up on this game here.

3. VIRGINIA CONTINUES TO LOOK LIKE THE BEST TEAM IN THE ACC

The Wahoos went into Atlanta and beat down Georgia Tech, 64-48, on Thursday night.

The most impressive thing about this season for Virginia isn’t that they are winning these games or that they are playing great defense or whatever. It’s that all of these wins they are collecting are impressive.

Georgia Tech never looked like they were really in this one, and the Yellow Jackets have been playing better of late and were at home. They beat N.C. State by 17. They handled North Carolina fairly easily. They embarrassed Virginia Tech on the road.

Virginia is really, really good, and the truth is that they are probably a year away from being their best selves.

CBT Podcast: Wichita State’s a mess, Trae Young’s struggles, Jamion Christian on transfers

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Rob Dauster was joined on Friday by Jamion Christian, the head coach of Mount St. Mary’s, for an enlightening and honest discussion about college basketball and transfers. There is a push to get transfers to be allowed to be immediately eligible, a push that many believe will have drastic, negative effects on coaches like Jamion. The two talk for 30 minutes about the ramifications of changing the rules before Rob is joined by Reags from the Fundamentally Sound podcast to go over the what happened to Trae Young, what happened to Wichita State’s defense and the weekend’s biggest games.

OPEN: Jamion Christian interview

30:22: Trae Young’s offensive issues

44:50: Does Wichita State have the most pressing defensive worries?

52:45: Weekend preview and picks ATS

Craft Beer Of The Week: Stone Xocoveza

Hunter scores 17 points, No. 2 Virginia beats Ga Tech 64-48

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ATLANTA (AP) — Virginia got off to a sluggish start offensively.

Fortunately for the Cavaliers, their defense never takes a night off.

De’Andre Hunter came off the bench to score 17 points and No. 2 Virginia turned in another defensive masterpiece Thursday, stretching its winning streak to nine in a row with a 64-48 victory over Georgia Tech.

The Cavaliers (17-1, 6-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) limited Georgia Tech to 40.5 percent shooting and forced 18 turnovers, leading to 16 points.

“The defense held us in there until we got a little rhythm and hit some shots,” coach Tony Bennett said. “We were stingy to score against. That always carries you on the road.”

Virginia snapped a four-game winning streak for the Yellow Jackets (10-8, 3-2).

After making the first basket of the game, Georgia Tech quickly got an idea of what kind of night it would be. The Jackets missed their next eight shots and turned it over four times before Josh Okogie finally broke a nearly eight-minute scoreless drought with a dunk off a backdoor pass.

Virginia shot just 40 percent in the first half but still led 28-19 at the break.

Georgia Tech never got any closer the rest of the way.

“They’re just a very disciplined team offensively and defensively,” Yellow Jackets center Ben Lammers said. “That makes it very difficult. You can’t make a mistake or you’ll pay for it.”

The last gasp for the home team essentially came in the closing seconds of the first half. It looked as though the Jackets would go to the locker room on a bit of a high after Curtis Haywood hit his second 3-pointer from far beyond the stripe, closing the gap to 24-19.

But Hunter got free in the corner and knocked down a trey with 0.1 seconds left in the half, turning it into a four-point play when Abdoulaye Gueye foolishly went for the block and sent the Virginia player sprawling to the court .

The free throw gave the Cavaliers their biggest lead of the opening period.

“That’s definitely not the way you want to end a half,” Lammers said. “We were on a little bit of a roll. It’s definitely a bit of a downer for our team. I think it helped their momentum.”

Virginia steadily pulled away over the final 20 minutes, dominating the inside for a 44-20 edge on points in the paint. Ty Jerome added 12 points, while Devon Hall and Kyle Guy had 11 apiece.

Tadric Jackson led Georgia Tech with 14 points. No one else was in double figures.

BIG PICTURE

Virginia: The Cavaliers held an opponent under 50 points for the eighth time this season. They came into the night allowing the fewest points of any Division I team, and actually improved on their 52.9 average. That helped to cover for a tough night from 3-point range on which the Cavs connected on just 3 of 13 attempts.

Georgia Tech: Okogie, averaging 18.8 points per game, struggled to get open and finished with just nine points on 3-of-8 shooting. But coach Josh Pastner is especially concerned about Lammers, who attempted only five shots, made one and finished with four points. “We’ve got to get more out of him offensively,” Pastner said. “When you’re not scoring, it sucks the life out of you.”

WILKINS STEPS UP

The Cavaliers switched things up a bit against Lammers, turning to Isaiah Wilkins to handle the bulk of the defensive duties.

When the teams met last season , 6-foot-10 Jack Salt limited Lammers to seven points on 3-of-12 shooting.

This time, it was the 6-foot-7 Wilkins — the stepson of former Atlanta Hawks great Dominique Wilkins — making life miserable for Georgia Tech’s big man.

“He played to his personality,” Bennett said. “He’s such a giver. He thinks help. He thinks cover for teammates. He knows how to anticipate. If you can find that, it’s worth its weight in gold for a defensive player.”

PACKED PAVILION

It was an especially disappointing performance for the Yellow Jackets, considering it came before their first sellout of the season at 8,600-seat McCamish Pavilion.

UP NEXT

Virginia: Plays its second straight ACC road game at Wake Forest on Sunday.

Georgia Tech: Faces a short turnaround before traveling to Chapel Hill on Saturday for another game against a ranked opponent, No. 15 North Carolina.

Palmer scores 19, leads Huskers in 72-52 rout of Michigan

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — James Palmer Jr. scored 19 points, Isaiah Roby had a career-high 14 and Nebraska beat No. 23 Michigan 72-52 on Thursday night for its first win over the Wolverines since joining the Big Ten.

Nebraska (14-7, 5-3), which needed Palmer’s 3-pointer to beat last-place Illinois 64-63 on Monday, led 32-21 at the half and never let Michigan get closer than 10 points in the last 17 minutes.

Michigan (16-5, 5-3), which had won nine of its last 10, suffered its most lopsided loss of the season and had a season-low for points. Charles Matthews had 15 points for the Wolverines, who shot 37.5 percent from the floor and a season-low 22.2 percent (4 of 18) on 3-pointers.

The Wolverines had come in 8-0 against the Huskers since Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011-12, and they had won 10 straight in the series.

In the final regular-season game last year, Michigan won 93-57 in Lincoln, the Huskers’ most lopsided home loss in program history. Michigan set the arena record for points by an opponent and matched the arena record with 14 made 13-pointers in that game.

Nebraska was in total control this time.

The Huskers played strong defense on the perimeter and forced nine of Michigan’s 12 turnovers the first 20 minutes. Roby, Duby Okeke and Jordy Tshimanga rendered Moritz Wagner a non-factor.

Wagner, who scored 27 points last Saturday against Michigan State and had reached double figures in all but two games, missed his only shot of the half. He finished with a season-low two points, his only basket coming on a dunk early in the second half.

Roby had two dunks and another basket during an 18-4 run that turned Nebraska’s 12-10 deficit into a 28-16 lead. The Wolverines went scoreless for more than 6 minutes and without a field goal for 7½ as the Huskers broke things open. The Wolverines missed 14 of their last 16 shots of the half.

The Huskers built the lead to 21 with less than 5 minutes to play.

Tshimanga, who missed the last two games for personal reasons, entered the game in the middle of the first half. The first time he touched the ball, he passed to Roby for a dunk.

BIG PICTURE

Michigan: Though the Wolverines have owned Nebraska, Pinnacle Bank Arena is a tough place to play, and they might have been out of gas after an emotional win over Michigan State and having to rally to beat Maryland 68-67 on Monday.

Nebraska: This was a crucial win for a team that has hopes of returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014. Michigan came into the game No. 30 in the RPI; no other opponent Nebraska has beaten is in the top 50. Another big opportunity comes Monday when the Huskers visit Ohio State (No. 18 RPI).

UP NEXT

Michigan hosts Rutgers on Sunday.

Nebraska visits No. 22 Ohio State on Monday.

St. Mary’s gets critical NCAA tourney resume win over No. 13 Gonzaga

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No one should probably get too worked about about one game in mid-January.

First of all, it’s one game. Forty minutes of small sample size randomness that could very well mean next to nothing.

Second, there is still nearly two months of regular season to play. What seems important now very well could fade to irrelevance come mid-March. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to attach much meaning to one game between two teams well ahead of when the stakes are actually clear.

Unless you’re St. Mary’s and you’re at Gonzaga.

Then, you can get hyped.

The Gaels finally delivered a resume-boosting win this season by dispatching the 13th-ranked Bulldogs, 74-71, in Spokane to invigorate a season that seemed destined to end with plenty of wins but few – if any – that really mattered.

Yeah, it’s one game. Yeah, it’s mid-January. Yeah, a lot can happen between now and Selection Sunday to render this moot. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

But make no mistake about it, St. Mary’s beating Gonzaga at The Kennell is a monumental victory for Randy Bennett’s team when the Gaels lacked even a notable one before it.

St. Mary’s non-conference schedule has become a tired topic, but it is absolutely why they find themselves in such a high-stake game just a couple weeks after New Year’s. It’s also perhaps maybe less their fault than ever. Bennett can’t be faulted for Cal being awful and Dayton being down. Those should be solid wins. But they aren’t. Then there’s the loss to Washington State. That should have been an opportunity for a good win. Instead it’s become a blight on their resume with the Cougars unable to compete in the anemic Pac 12.The one true chance for a meaningful win came against Georgia, and the Bulldogs nipped them in OT.

Beyond that, there’s a lot of wins on the resume for the Gaels, but not a lot of substance. Beating up a couple times each the likes of Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine and Santa Clara doesn’t exactly move the needle.

That’s what made Thursday night so incredibly critical for St. Mary’s, and, if we’re being honest, for college basketball. The Gaels are absolutely one of the 68 best teams in the country. Conservatively, I’d say somewhere around the top 30. The NCAA tournament simply would have been worse off without them.

They showed why against Gonzaga.

The Bulldogs looked poised to pull away on numerous occasions, leading by as many as nine in the second half, but the Gaels wouldn’t let them gain comfortable separation. There was always an answer.

At least there was always Jock Landale.

The 6-foot-11 senior brought his All-American stuff to Spokane, going for 26 points on 12 of 15 shooting while also posting 12 rebounds and three assists. There’s not much flash to Landale’s game, but his fundamentals do the work for him. He established great position early and just went to work, abusing Gonzaga’s frontline time and again.

Landale is one of the most efficient offensive players in the country while simultaneously being one of its better rebounders. That’s a dude who in his senior year needs to be in the NCAA tournament. I won’t hear arguments to the contrary.

This win doesn’t guarantee a spot for the Gaels, obviously. They can’t afford a major slip-up, and another win against the Zags would go a long way, but it at least puts them in a tenable position with more than six weeks until March.

It’s the cruel reality of life in the WCC. Whether it would have won or lost Thursday night, St. Mary’s clearly established itself as a peer to Gonzaga, a team whom no one wonders about its NCAA tournament viability. St. Mary’s is right there with them. If they would have lost, it may not have mattered. The W-L, the RPI and the resume just wouldn’t have enough evidence to support what was so readily apparent to anyone watching.

They did win, though.

Sure, it’s still only one game. Sure, it’s still early. Sure, plenty can still go wrong.

Sure beats the alternative, though.