Before the Maryland men’s basketball team got off its bus after Saturday’s 78-67 loss to Illinois, head coach Mark Turgeon asked his team — and himself — to leave that result in Madison Square Garden.
“We’ve got to put it behind us,” Turgeon said.
In charge of the fifth-youngest team in the country, Turgeon has often been impressed with how mature his squad has been in the first half of an intense college slate. There were moments against Michigan State and Illinois, though, that seemed to put their well-veiled inexperience on full display — particularly with turnovers and defensive woes.
Still, Turgeon didn’t mind a bit of the Terps’ youth shining through upon their return to College Park. And as it prepares to face Northwestern at Xfinity Center on Tuesday, Maryland will have an immediate chance to quell its first losing streak of the season, providing a baseline for how a young group deals with — or forgets about — stumbling blocks throughout the year.
“It’s easier for them. They’re kids; they’re resilient,” Turgeon said. “They were worried about what they were going to have when they get off the bus for dinner. I think coaches take it a lot harder. It’s our livelihoods. So it’s me I was worried about, I was more talking to myself.”
Guard Eric Ayala’s zero-point, five-turnover performance was a low moment in what has been an otherwise productive freshman year. Maryland’s other rookies didn’t find much success, either — forward Jalen Smith scored four points in the final 37 minutes and guard Aaron Wiggins posted eight points on 3-for-8 shooting. They could only watch as Illinois’ freshmen helped a late first-half run to turn the tide of the game.
After watching the film, returning to the gym and working on what went awry, Ayala felt the weight of back-to-back losses fade away. If anything, Saturday’s result and Michigan State’s loss to Purdue on Sunday proved the talent of Big Ten teams — even those, like the Illini, who languish near the bottom of the conference.
As the Terps racked up a seven-game winning streak, their foot slowly lifted off the pedal, offering Illinois a chance to secure its second conference win.
“We went on that nice win streak, we kind of relaxed a little bit,” Ayala said. “Our practices haven’t been as tough as they were in the beginning of the year. And now we’ve gotta find that dog. You know, back on that hunt.”
Maryland will have that opportunity Tuesday, back at home for the first time since Jan. 14. And the Terps know the Big Ten matchup won’t be a cake walk.
“Northwestern’s a really good team,” guard Aaron Wiggins said. “If we just sit back and look at the mistakes we made in that game [Saturday], and we don’t bounce back, that only holds us back.”
To ensure a bounce-back, rectifying their transition defense and cleaning up their offense after a season-high 21 turnovers will be key.
But for a young team, erasing Saturday’s result doesn’t appear to be a major problem. Ayala, whom Turgeon describes as an “old soul,” can look back fondly on the experience of playing at Madison Square Garden, despite the loss.
And while Maryland’s age can be evident in certain situations on the court, it hardly seems an issue off it.
“Basketball’s what we do — basketball’s what we love,” Ayala said. “But it’s not who we are. It doesn’t carry over to our regular life or who we are as people. To take a loss like that, it hurts, basketball-wise. But it doesn’t kill our spirits as a person.”