With seven straight wins, Big Ten runner-up Maryland is the hottest team heading into this week’s conference tournament in Chicago. Not bad considering the Terrapins endured a tumultuous offseason and were picked to finish 10th in their first year in the league.
On Monday they found themselves No. 8 in the Top 25 — their highest ranking in 12 years — and fresh off a victory at Nebraska that gave them a school-record 26 regular-season wins.
Coach Mark Turgeon initially demurred when asked if this, so far, has been the most enjoyable of his 17 seasons as a head coach.
“I try not to rank them,” he said. But “considering what we’ve gone through here, this has been pretty satisfying.”
Last spring five players transferred, including starting point guard Seth Allen, and it left Turgeon to reassess the culture in his program. The players who stayed and the newcomers have formed a strong bond, and the Terps are assured of making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years.
Freshman point guard Melo Trimble has been one of the Big Ten’s big surprises, averaging a team-leading 16.1 points. Senior guard-forward Dez Wells has averaged 18.7 points and 6.7 rebounds the last seven games.
“Dez Wells just brings a toughness to that team that is uncanny, and Trimble — I don’t know if anybody knew how good he was. Most of us didn’t. But he’s had an extraordinary year,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, whose team lost twice to the Terps and could face them again in the Big Ten semifinals. “Good coaching, good players on that team, but the way those two have risen has really made a difference.”
Some things to watch in the Big Ten tournament, which opens Wednesday and has sixth-ranked Wisconsin as the No. 1 seed:
INJURY UPDATE: Branden Dawson (concussion) is expected to play in Michigan State’s first game Friday, Izzo said, but Javon Bess (broken foot) is done for the season. Indiana coach Tom Crean said 3-point shooting specialist Collin Hartman (leg bruise) will play Thursday against Northwestern. Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, who had hoped Traevon Jackson (broken foot) would be ready by tournament time, said he had no idea whether the point guard would play this week.
FAIR FORMAT: Coaches agreed the tournament format, which gives double-byes to the top four seeds, is fair. The new format is the result of the conference’s expansion to 14 teams.
“The teams that got it done all year should be rewarded. The teams that didn’t, well, unfortunately, you’re going to have to win five,” said coach Patrick Chambers of No. 13 seed Penn State.
BROODING BUCKEYES? Ohio State heads to Chicago off a 72-48 defeat to Wisconsin that was its worst at home since losing by 28 to West Virginia in December 2008. The fifth-seeded Buckeyes play Rutgers or Minnesota on Thursday. Coach Thad Matta plans to rebuild his players’ psyche between now and then.
“After the game, I did all the talking,” Matta said. “I said, ‘Hey, we had a bad day. Give them credit.’ As we move forward, we’re going into situations now where it’s lose and you go home. From that perspective, we’ll get them back up, get a couple good practices and get them ready to go again.”
WATCH THOSE WILDCATS: Northwestern, which lost 10 of its first 11 Big Ten games, won five of its last seven and would contend for an NIT bid with a strong showing this week. Northwestern earned the No. 10 seed and beat its first opponent, Indiana, two weeks ago at home.
“Tenth isn’t our end-all,” said coach Chris Collins, whose team upset Iowa as the No. 11 seed last year. “We want to keep climbing that ladder as we continue and improve, but it’s a step forward from where we were last year.”
KINGS OF MOUNT NITTANY? Penn State’s 79-76 win over Minnesota on D.J. Newbill’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer on Sunday ended the Nittany Lions’ six-game losing streak and was their first Big Ten road win in a year. The No. 13 Lions on Wednesday face No. 12 Nebraska, a loser of eight straight.
“We’ve got a red-hot Penn State team that feels like they’re 10 feet tall and bullet-proof, and rightfully so,” Cornhuskers coach Tim Miles said.
Penn State’s Chambers was less dramatic.
“It was a good thing,” he said of Sunday’s win, “because you get a road win and you break a losing streak. Two positives. And we haven’t seen many positives in the last few weeks. We definitely feel we have some momentum.”
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