CHICAGO — Entering the 2014-15 season there wasn’t a lot of hope for Maryland basketball.
Senior guard Dez Wells is quick to point out that the Terps were picked to finish 10th in the Big Ten back in the fall. Head coach Mark Turgeon was atop many preseason lists for coaches on the hot seat after losing five players to transfer the previous offseason.
Those low projections didn’t quell expectations among players in the Maryland locker room. They earned an impressive non-conference win over Iowa State in Kansas City before finishing second in the Big Ten during the regular season. The Terps find themselves as the No. 8 team in the country entering Selection Sunday.
Some have questioned the validity of that top-ten standing.
While Maryland has been fantastic in close-game situations this season — going 11-0 in games decided by six points or less before Saturday’s 64-60 loss to the Spartans in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals — they aren’t even ranked in the top 30 in Kenpom’s rankings.
Some have attributed Maryland’s performance in those close games to luck. Kenpom rates Maryland as the second luckiest team in the country.
Much like the preseason expectations, Maryland’s locker room doesn’t seem to care about the opinions (or computer data) of others when it comes to how they win games. They see themselves as a tight-knit team that knows how to handle themselves in close games and they’re confident heading into the NCAA Tournament.
“They’ll have their opinions about it. At the end of the day, we know we’re a team to be reckoned with. We’re a heck of a team each and every night out,” Wells said of the critics on Saturday. “Regardless of what seeding or whatever they give us, we’re just happy to be in the Tournament and we want to make a deep run.”
Late-game situations can be put together in practice through an imaginary score in an imaginary game. Wells points out that many of the factors that come into play at the end of a game are things Maryland can’t prepare for.
“There’s really no way you can simulate late-game situations besides putting a score on the board [in practice],” Wells said. “You can’t simulate the environment, the fans, a team being on a run. You just can’t simulate those types of things. It just has to come to that experience. And we have that experience on this team.”
“Experience” is a word that is often uttered by Maryland players when late-game situations are brought up. Since they’ve been in a lot of them, they feel like veterans of the process of weathering close finishes.
“Confidence” is the buzzword coming right behind it. Freshman Melo Trimble doesn’t have the experience factor of his older Maryland teammates, but he’s proven to be one of college basketball’s best closers in his first season.
“To have a guy that confident, to know that he’s going to knock those shots down, it’s big,” Maryland junior Jake Layman said of Trimble’s late-game free-throw shooting.
At 87 percent from the free-throw line this season, the Terps feel like New York Yankees fans hearing “Enter Sandman” when Mariano Rivera emerged from the bullpen with a lead in the 9th inning. Maryland feels like they’re always going to win if Trimble steps to the line with a lead. That confidence carries over to other facets of the game and Layman believes its a byproduct of a summer of hard work.
Layman knew this group of freshmen would be contributors when they would dust themselves off after pickup losses and keep playing hard when the next game started. The confidence of the group never wavered, regardless of what had just happened.
“You could just tell how confident each and every one of them was coming in and that’s shown on the court this season,” Layman said of the Maryland freshmen.
As Maryland has continued to pile up the close wins this season, that self-confidence has grown even more. Now the Terps feel like they have a recipe for success in close games and it helps to have Trimble to finish things off. There’s no science or data to support the feeling that Maryland has when the game is close, they just know they aren’t going to get rattled very easily.
“I think we do get confident when the game is on the line. We just try to stay aggressive and that’s how we’ve been winning,” Wells said. “It just comes with having confidence in yourself and having poise and keeping your composure in tough situations on the court.”