MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports

I just had a feeling Maryland basketball would not go undefeated this season, even after the Terps’ 8-0 start under first-year head coach Kevin Willard.

Rats. I hate when I’m right about some things.

The Terps lost on Tuesday night, 64-59, at Wisconsin in one of those obscene 9 p.m. games that are made and ordered for and by television; not that that’s the reason Maryland lost, of course. Maryland lost because it didn’t get to the rim and, in turn, didn’t shoot the ball, although the Terps did have some spurts when they shot pretty well, particularly late in the first half and then early in the second. But that was about it, and they lost.

So the Terps, ranked No. 13 in the nation, are now 8-1 as they enter a very challenging week of non-conference games with No. 7 Tennessee Sunday in Brooklyn and then at home on Wednesday against No. 19 UCLA. That will make three ranked opponents in four games, as the Terps beat current No. 17 Illinois prior to the Wisconsin game.

The schedule is just one of the many things that looks different about Maryland basketball now, as opposed to the way it was in the previous 10 seasons, because under Willard, Maryland basketball will not shy from playing nationally-ranked non-conference opponents at home, on the road or at a neutral site, which is what we’ll see on Sunday.

A schedule like this one is something that pays dividends for the rest of the season. It gives the team more experience against some of the best teams in the country, which should help them once the Big Ten schedule kicks in for the rest of the season, not to mention postseason play (I know, forgive me, we’re getting ahead of ourselves).

The schedule will also help the team’s standing in all of the various ratings systems the NCAA Tournament uses to complete its field and, certainly, it’s good for the home gate, as Wednesday’s game with UCLA should produce another robust crowd as was the case for the Illinois game, which has been something we had grown unaccustomed to seeing during Mark Turgeon’s tenure and is why we saw a lot of empty seats for previous non-conference December opponents the likes of UMBC, Loyola and Towson.

As we pointed out here previously, everything about Maryland basketball looks different than it had grown to look; or, perhaps, morphed into looking would be a more apt way to describe the backward transformation of Maryland basketball that had slowly but surely taken place the previous decade.

There’s just more flash and excitement to everything that surrounds this program now – the schedule, the enthusiasm of the fans, the up-tempo style the team plays with, the constant pressure defense, an offense that is aggressive toward the basket and a crisp, well-schooled approach to everything the Terps do and are.

Maryland didn’t play well at Wisconsin and that was in part due to the ugly, but effective, style the talent-challenged Badgers feel they must use to lure opponents into their style of slow, physical, deliberate play with effective cuts and backdoors to the basket, which, we think, was the kind of style Turgeon attempted to employ when he was the Maryland coach.

Yet we say “we think” because we were never sure of what, if any, offense it was that Maryland was running. Maybe “we guess” was a better way to put it.

Still, what was encouraging about Tuesday night was Maryland remained in the game until the end and had several opportunities to eliminate the Badgers’ lead down the stretch. Again, they shot poorly all game, particularly in the beginning and the end of it. Yet they still pushed the action and played aggressively to the end, which is something that will keep Maryland in just about every game it plays this season.

This is not meant to take shots at Turgeon and his coaching. I make a habit of not criticizing something I have neither done nor am able to do myself; but the difference here is enormous, beginning with the eye test. And it is a positive eye test beginning with the energy Willard brings and provides to this program.

There is still a long way to go for the Terps this season. View this season if you will, as the first step of the journey to return Maryland basketball to national relevance, because depth is going to be an issue for this team once the meat of the Big Ten schedule is on.

But this team has already shown an ability to learn on the fly and to adapt, and on Tuesday in an unfriendly environment against an awkward yet capable conference opponent, it hung in there and had a chance to win.

You can’t ask for more.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT