Fourteen straight losses. Zero wins in Big Ten play. The odds were against Minnesota heading into its matchup with No. 6 Maryland on Thursday, even if the game was in Minneapolis and the Terrapins were playing without their second-leading scorer in Diamond Stone, who was suspended for the game.
Then a funny thing happened. The Golden Gophers, who shoot 31% from three-point range on the season, made seven of their first 10 attempts from behind the arc. Then they took an 11-point lead into halftime, producing 40 first-half points against a team with a top-15 defense.
Welcome to college basketball in 2016. A night after No. 3 Oklahoma lost at unranked Texas Tech, No. 4 Iowa fell at 13-win Penn State and No. 5 North Carolina stunningly blew a late lead at home to No. 20 Duke, Minnesota provided one of the most shocking results of the season by upending Maryland, 68–63.
The win was a long-time coming for Richard Pitino’s Gophers, who had come close to notching their first conference win of the season on multiple occasions but fell short. They nearly got over the hump at No. 4 Iowa on Sunday, but were held off by the Jarrod Uthoff-led Hawkeyes in a four-point loss.
With other single-digit losses to Michigan State, Illinois, Purdue, Michigan (twice), Penn State and Indiana this year, Minnesota seemed bound to break through at some point, and a raucous crowd that showed up to support its struggling team provided the extra oomph the young Gophers needed. And if you need more evidence of how much the marquee win meant to Minnesota, listen to Joey King’s emotional postgame interview, where the senior was in tears talking about his team’s effort.
As euphoric as the night was for a team searching for positives in a season mired with perpetual disappointment, the game thoroughly dropped Maryland back down to earth. Stone’s absence may be somewhat of a buffer in the larger context of the game’s result, but it’s a game the Terps absolutely should not have lost, Stone or no Stone. Maryland entered Thursday having avoided any bad losses amid its impressive 22–4 record, but falling to what had been a 6–19 team certainly changes that.
Having also lost to Wisconsin on Saturday, snapping a 27-game home-winning streak, the Terrapins have now dropped back-to-back games for the first time since the 2013–14 season. That on its own is no reason to panic—No. 2 Kansas went through a five-game stretch that featured three losses, No. 3 Oklahoma has lost three of its last four and No. 5 UNC lost back-to-back games a couple weeks ago—but the way Maryland played in those games, specifically offensively, is concerning.
For a team with so many talented offensive weapons and NBA prospects, the Terrapins can rarely seem to put together a complete game on offense. They’ve overcome poor shooting nights and games with long scoring droughts with their defense on more than one occasion, but an over-reliance on that can unravel quickly when the other team can exploit it. After scoring a season-low 57 points in the loss to Wisconsin, head coach Mark Turgeon said the defeat was “really probably the biggest adversity we’ve hit because we lost a home game. So, we’ll see how we handle it.” Following that up by managing just 63 points on 37.5% shooting against a 19-loss team is not going to cut it.
This mini-slide by Maryland has coincided with star point guard Melo Trimble hitting a bit of a wall: in the back-to-back losses, Trimble shot a combined 4 for 25 and committed 11 turnovers. And while Trimble has greatly improved his court vision this season and grown adept at finding open looks for his teammates, his shooting stats are down. After shooting 41.2% from three last season, he’s down to 33.6% this year, including a 28.2% mark in Big Ten play. Yet 48.8% of Trimble’s shots have been three-point attempts (according to hoop-math.com), up 5% from his freshman campaign. Trimble is also not getting to the free-throw line as often this year, averaging 4.6 attempts per game compared to 6.9 in 2014–15. The result has been him often settling for threes and contested jumpers, and when they aren’t falling it leaves the Terrapins in big trouble.
While Trimble runs Maryland’s ship, he’s certainly not the only one having some struggles. After having eight straight games of double-digit scoring, forward Robert Carter Jr. has only reached double figures once in his last five games and shot 3 of 12 from the floor against Minnesota. Jared Nickens, primarily a three-point specialist, is hitting just 32.4% of his looks from the arc this year, and senior Jake Layman’s three-point percentage (34%) is his lowest since his freshman year.
On the plus side, transfer Rasheed Sulaimon is shooting 46.5% from three and has been the Terps’ savior on occasions when Trimble is off, including a 28-point performance in the Minnesota loss. He’s been a solid glue guy for Maryland all season and has seemingly provided the emotional leadership lost when Dez Wells graduated.
The Terrapins, though, continue to be plagued by turnovers, committing 15 against the Gophers and dropping to No. 295 in the country in turnover percentage, according to kenpom.com. And despite its towering frontcourt that includes Stone, Carter, 6'11" Damonte Dodd and 7-foot Michal Cekovsky, defensive rebounding has also been an issue. Minnesota grabbed 11 offensive boards on Thursday, including five by freshman Jordan Murphy alone, Wisconsin grabbed 13 on Saturday and Nebraska corralled 16 two weeks ago.
Maryland has four regular-season games left to get back on track before the Big Ten tournament, but they won’t be easy ones. On Sunday the Terps will host Michigan, which beat Maryland in January, and they still must travel to No. 18 Purdue and No. 22 Indiana. On Wednesday, the Terrapins were right back in the Big Ten title race thanks to Iowa’s surprising loss, but now they could find themselves suddenly battling just to keep a top-four seed (and double bye) for the tournament. At 10–4, Maryland can still win the Big Ten title (it sits a game behind 11–3 Indiana and Iowa), but five five-loss teams now sit immediately below them in the standings.
Like many leagues, the Big Ten is starting to get crowded. Only two games separate the top nine teams in the conference, just another symptom of a college basketball season where it seems nobody is safe. Every top team has flaws, and Maryland is just the latest to suffer a bad or highly surprising loss. But time is ticking and the NCAA tournament nears. While some teams that hit rough patches earlier this year, such as Duke, Kansas and Michigan State, now seem to be rolling, others teams like Maryland, Oklahoma and Oregon are hitting varied degrees of adversity. For the best teams, the ones capable of a deep NCAA run, a rough patch is all it will be. For the others—the ones whose problems will prove fatal—March will be a miserable, and short, month.