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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.

Virginia, Seton Hall, Rhode Island, Vandy in NIT Tip-Off

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NEW YORK (AP) — Virginia and Vanderbilt will meet in one semifinal of the NIT Preseason Tip-Off on Thanksgiving Day at Barclays Center.

Rhode Island and Seton Hall face off in the other semifinal with the winners meeting on Friday, Nov. 24.

This is the third straight year the Tip-Off has been held at Barclays Center. Eventual NCAA champion Villanova won the event in 2015. All games will be televised on ESPNU.

Non-bracketed teams in the NIT Season Tip-Off who will play games at campus sites are: Austin Peay, Fairleigh Dickinson, Monmouth, Oakland City and UNC Asheville.

Miles Bridges explain why he returned to Michigan State

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Miles Bridges changed the landscape of the 2017-18 college basketball season on April 13.

The Michigan State forward spurned the NBA for another year in East Lansing. The decision not only meant that Bridges was a frontrunner for national player of the year, but solidified the Spartans as a national title contender.

But Bridges’ choice to return was still puzzling to many. The 6-foot-7 forward was projected as a lottery pick. Bridges explained his decision to Mike Decourcy of Sporting News in a story published on Thursday.

“He says, ‘You know what, Coach? I want to get better. I don’t want to be in the D-League. I’ve got buddies that are, and I just want to make sure when I go, I’m ready,’ ” Izzo recalled to Sporting News. “I looked at him and I said, ‘Done deal.’ For me, that was a done deal. It was a reasonable, sensible argument.”

Agents, friends, reporters, scouts, acquaintances, fans, strangers and family members — oh and, as we said, coaches — all had one opinion about how Bridges should spend the next year of his life. Miles had another, opposing, viewpoint.

Bridges told Decourcy that support came from his teammates, many of whom were returning to the team as well. Assuming the backcourt of Cassius Winston and Josh Langford make a leap forward, as well as incoming freshman Jaren Jackson providing an immediate impact, the Spartans’ title hopes could become a reality.

Bridges averaged 16.9 points, 8.3 boards, 2.1 assists and 1.5 blocks as a freshman at Michigan State. He’s rated as the No. 5 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft by DraftExpress.

Four conferences sign on to basketball officiating alliance

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GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — Four more Division I conferences will join a men’s basketball officiating alliance formed last year by the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big East, the Atlantic 10 and Colonial Athletic Association.

The Big South, the Ivy League, the Northeast and the Patriot League are joining ahead of the 2017-18 season, according to announcements from the leagues Thursday. The alliance launched last summer for conferences to work together on officiating matters and enhance training, development, recruitment, retention and feedback for officials.

John Cahill, the Big East’s supervisor of officials, and Bryan Kersey, the ACC’s coordinator of men’s basketball officiating, will continue to lead the alliance operations.

ACC commissioner John Swofford says the new additions to the alliance “provide an even greater opportunity to build chemistry and quality” across the officiating ranks.

North Carolina to unveil national championship banner in October

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The latest addition to the rafters of the Dean Dome will be unveiled this fall.

North Carolina will raise the banner for its 2017 national championship on Oct. 13, according to a report from Inside Carolina.

The event will coincide with the Tar Heels’ “Late Night With Roy” event that marks the public start to the season for the program and also serves, like many other top programs, as a recruiting tool.

North Carolina won its sixth NCAA national championship in April by defeating Gonzaga, 71-65, in Phoenix to avenge its last-second loss in the title game to Villanova the year prior. It was the Tar Heels’ first championship since 2009.

VIDEO: Zion Williamson vs. LaMelo Ball highlights

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It was the most anticipated matchup of the summer.

Zion Williamson vs. LaMelo Ball.

People were turned away at the door – and LeBron James reportedly came and went – as the gym reached capacity for SC Supreme’s 104-92 victory over the Big Ballers. That’s Williamson over Ball (LaMelo and LaVar).

The game was mostly spectacle, and you can see it’s top moments right here.