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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.

NTSB cites mechanical issue in Michigan plane incident

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YPSILANTI TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) A preliminary investigation into the runway accident involving a plane carrying the Michigan men’s basketball team cites a mechanical problem.

The National Transportation Safety Board on Wednesday issued an update about the March 8 crash at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti Township, near the Ann Arbor school. The aborted takeoff caused extensive damage to the aircraft but only one minor injury during evacuation.

The report does not list a likely cause of the incident, but it says flight data recorder shows the right elevator – the primary mechanism controlling an airplane’s pitch – didn’t move during the attempted takeoff.

The plane carrying 109 passengers and seven crew members skidded 1,000 feet past the runway. The team was headed to Washington, D.C., for the Big Ten Tournament. They flew the next day and won the tournament and are now in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

Butler, Purdue use true grit to get programs into Sweet 16

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Coach Matt Painter kept believing in his team even as he watched Purdue fritter away a 19-point lead.

He did, after all, recruit these players to excel in tough times. And he did spend two years using the lessons from consecutive overtime losses in the NCAA Tournament to show his team what it took to survive in March.

So when the Boilermakers steadied themselves, retook the lead and reached their first Sweet 16 in seven years, Painter wasn’t surprised. He simply knew the Boilermakers, finally, were tough enough.

“No question, having that grit back after not having it for a couple of years helps,” Painter said. “We put a lot of skill on the court, but we also have guys who are competitive.”

Painter, after all, grew up a fan of former Hoosiers coach Bob Knight, went on to play for Gene Keady and then served on Keady’s staff briefly before succeeding his former coach.

Experience has taught Painter just how delicate it can be to find the proper balance.

After finishing last in the Big Ten in 2013-14 with guys who were content to rely more on their athleticism than mental toughness, Painter changed course.

He brought in gritty overachievers who embraced old-school principles built on effort and led Purdue to its first outright conference title since 1996. Nothing reinforced those beliefs more than last weekend’s comeback against Iowa State.

“Leads are blown throughout March Madness, which is all about close games. I always tell the guys, `If it’s not a blowout, then it is a close game,”‘ junior forward Vince Edwards said Monday. “We have learned to be able to take a run – like Iowa State’s – and be able to withstand it.”

The best teams always do, which is why fourth-seeded Purdue will now face top-seeded Kansas (30-4) in one of Thursday night’s Midwest Regional semifinal games .

Finding players who are the right fit is a challenge for every coach and program.

At Butler, it’s a tradition that has been passed down through nearly a half-dozen coaches over a span of two decades. Former coach and current athletic director Barry Collier started the process by turning the Bulldogs from perennial also-ran into a regular conference contender and NCAA Tourney hopeful.

Thad Matta and Todd Lickliter kept the momentum going before taking other jobs, and Brad Stevens perfected the script as the Bulldogs posted consecutive national runner-up finishes.

Things didn’t always go smoothly. Fans still remember watching the Bulldogs blow an upset against Florida in the 2000 tourney and the inexplicable 2002 tourney snub.

Eventually, though, those painful moments gave way to a litany of program-defining memories.

Against Louisville in the 2003 tourney, a teammate handed his dry shoes to the late Joel Cornette so Cornette could help close out an upset against Louisville in 2003. In the 2010 title game, junior center Matt Howard had the foresight to set a pick and give Gordon Hayward a clean look on his half-court heave that just missed.

The next year, Howard managed to draw a foul in the waning seconds against Pittsburgh to keep Butler’s postseason run alive.

“The stories are unbelievable,” point guard Tyler Lewis said. “That was a special group because they really made the community believe Butler was not just some small school. Butler was a school you didn’t mess around with.”

Stevens and his predecessors moved the school up the pecking order by recruiting late-bloomers or players who were often overlooked by bigger schools. They asked them to play selflessly, a style that defines The Butler Way.

While that philosophy worked well in the Horizon League and the Atlantic 10, Chris Holtmann needed to make some adjustments to thrive in the stronger Big East. Holtmann has recruited better athletes and is looking for more physical players, but the same basic philosophy hasn’t changed.

“I think it (toughness) has been valued here at a really high level, from those who came before me,” Holtmann said. “I just hope I’m doing my job to carry it on.”

The good news is he hasn’t had do too much.

Here, players like leading scorer Kelan Martin don’t complain about coming off the bench if asked. Grad transfers like Avery Woodson and Kethan Savage are both happy to help any way they can in their first and only NCAA appearance.

And it will be that way again when fourth-seeded Butler (25-8) tries to upset top-seeded North Carolina (29-7) in the South Region on Friday night.

“What makes us so tough is that we believe in each other,” said Lewis, who started his career at North Carolina State. “It’s an honor putting on this Butler uniform because it reminds us of what the guys did that came before us.”

Sweet 16 Preview: Thursday’s picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

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The Sweet 16 kicks off on Thursday night, and the games are going to be terrific.

Oregon-Michigan should be thrilling, Gonzaga-West Virginia is a fascinating contrast of styles and Kansas-Purdue features arguably the two best players in college basketball.

Oh, and then there’s Arizona-Xavier, with Sean Miller and Chris Mack doing battle.

For an in-depth look at each region, check these out:

SWEET 16 PREVIEW: Midwest | West | South | East

No. 3 Oregon vs. No. 7 Michigan (-1.5), 7:09 p.m. (CBS): So this run that Michigan on, is it a fluke?

Frankly, I don’t think that it is. Derrick Walton has been awesome for the better part of two months while Michigan’s perimeter shooters have always been shooters and the duo of D.J. Wilson and Mo Wagner are legit. I honestly do not believe that the Wolverines are a team of destiny after the plane crash. They are just really good and a perfect roster for John Beilein to tinker with.

That’s why they’re favored on Thursday night. But here’s the thing … Oregon is pretty good themselves. Dillon Brooks is going to be guarded by a big man, which should be a matchup that Brooks can take advantage of, and Tyler Dorsey has been playing terrific basketball since the start of the Pac-12 tournament.

If you like small-ball, spread-the-court basketball, you’ll love this game.

PREDICTION: Michigan (-1.5)

No. 1 Gonzaga (-3) vs. No. 4 West Virginia, 7:39 p.m. (TBS): On paper, I think Gonzaga should win this game. They have a good back court in Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins, a pair of talented point guards that have won a lot of games in their career. Gonzaga is also the best defensive team in the country. So if they don’t turn the ball over against West Virginia’s press and they make it difficult for West Virginia to score in the half court and get into their press, they should be able to win this thing, right?

Well, maybe not.

My concern with Gonzaga is game-pressure. They didn’t handle it well down the stretch against BYU in their one loss of the season, and I’m not convinced that they win that second round game against Northwestern if the officials don’t blow the goaltending call. How are they going to handle an endless wave of Mountaineers in their face?

PREDICTION: Gonzaga (-3)

No. 1 Kansas (-5) vs. No. 4 Purdue, 9:39 p.m. (CBS): More than any other game this weekend, I’m fascinated to see how these two teams decide to try and play each other. Kansas has, essentially, one big man that Bill Self can trust, and he’s going up against a Player of the Year candidate in Caleb Swanigan and one of the best big men in the country at drawing fouls in Isaac Haas. Will Self double-team Swanigan knowing that Purdue may be more effective offensively when Swanigan can find shooters out of the double-team, or will he risk Lucas getting in foul trouble by trying to guard Swanigan one-on-one?

Then, at the other end of the floor, how will Purdue deal with the Kansas back court? Frank Mason III, the NBC Sports National Player of the Year, and Devonte’ Graham are a nightmare for anyone to deal with, let alone a team that struggles against penetrating guards and that lacks rim protection. It should be a fascinating coaching battle.

PREDICTION: Kansas (-5)

No. 2 Arizona (-7.5) vs. No. 11 Xavier, 10:09 p.m. (TBS): On paper, Arizona should be able to handle a Xavier team that doesn’t have Edmond Sumner or Myles Davis. That said, as we all know, Chris Mack and Sean Miller are very close and used to work together. Mack knows everything that Miller is going to do and vice versa. I think this game will be a low-scoring, grind-it-out affair that comes down to the final minutes.

PREDICTION: Xavier (+7.5)

Shayok and Reuter transferring from Virginia

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Virginia announced the departure of two players Wednesday.

Marial Shayok and Jarred Reuter will both transfer out of the program, the school said.

“Marial and Jarred informed me today that they are leaving the Virginia basketball program and are looking to transfer to other schools,” Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett said in a statement released by the school. “I thank Marial and Jarred for their hard work and contributions to our program, and wish them success in the future.”

Shayok, a a 6-foot-5 junior, played 20.9 minutes per game last season for the Cavaliers, averaging 8.9 points and 2.4 rebounds per game while shooting 44.5 percent from the floor. The Ottawa native started 23 games in three seasons with Virginia.

Reuter played a minimal role for the Cavaliers, averaging just 10.8 minutes and 3.8 rebounds per game.

Wake’s Collins declares for NBA draft without hiring agent

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) Wake Forest’s John Collins is entering the NBA draft but will not hire an agent and is keeping open the option of returning to school for his junior season.

In a statement Wednesday announcing the decision, Collins said he wants “to make an informed decision about what is best for my future.”

Collins is a 6-foot-10 forward who as a sophomore blossomed into one of the best big men in the Atlantic Coast Conference and was voted to the Associated Press all-ACC team.

He averaged 19.2 points and 9.8 rebounds, putting together a string of 12 consecutive 20-point games late in the season.

His progression was a big reason why the Demon Deacons earned their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2010. Kansas State beat Wake Forest in the First Four.

More AP college basketball: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org