MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports

Say this for the Maryland Terrapins during their first year under head coach Kevin Willard – they are what they are, and what you see on any given night is what you get. You’re just not quite sure what it is you’ll be seeing.

Nobody in College Park, or at least nobody within the confines of Xfinity Center, is going to say this is a mulligan season for the Terps in light of where the program has most recently been, and where Willard is intent on taking it. Willard doesn’t want to hear that because he doesn’t want his players to believe it. He says the object is to win. Every game.

So Maryland is out there every game trying to win, and after the first eight games that is precisely what the Terps had done, beginning the season 8-0 and ranked as high as No. 13 in the AP Top 25.

I wouldn’t say the unexpected high ranking was akin to Icarus flying too close to the sun. It was startling, though, and even the most devoted Maryland fan kind of thought, “Really?”

That surprise of the ranking began to come to light when the Terps went into Wisconsin and were handed their first loss by the Badgers, 64-59; not because they lost, not at all. Maryland battled to the very end in that game, which in itself was amazing since the first indication that this was not a team that shoots very well became obvious on that night.

The Terps followed that loss with two more losses, a gritty three-point loss to No. 7 Tennessee and then a complete blowout loss at home to No. 16 UCLA.

Since then, the Terps have been up and down, their most recent trend being up, given a real nice win at home over Michigan, 18 days after being blown out at Michigan, and another gritty three-point road loss at Purdue and the enormous then No. 3, but now No. 1 Boilermakers.

Perhaps that could qualify as a so-called good loss, if there is such a thing, but you can be sure Willard doesn’t view it that way, because if Maryland had just made a few extra open shots, it would have been in great position to come out of there with a win (and we won’t even get into the ongoing horrific Big Ten officiating).

There were good signs in that game, most notably the play of forward Julian Reese, who turned in his best game against one of the biggest and best teams in the country.

Maryland (12-7 overall, 3-5 Big Ten) has had some bad losses – UCLA, Michigan, Rutgers and Iowa. Yet Maryland has also had some very good wins – St. Louis, Miami, Illinois, Ohio State and Michigan.

For the Terps to beat a bigger and more talented team like Michigan, who had just blown out Maryland less than three weeks previously, speaks very well for the kind of head coach the university has hired to direct its basketball program back to national prominence.

He’s going to do that, too, whether it’s in two years, three years or four years; the Terps are going to be right back in the mix.

In the meantime, beginning with this team, just watch with an open mind. For beginners, they do not quit and they play pretty good defense. Their pressure defense has been very effective in stretches, but that’s only if Maryland can make some shots so it is able to set it up. Then, not by accident, the offense automatically becomes more efficient.

Tonight in their home game with Wisconsin (12-6, 4-4), it very well could be the Terps’ perimeter defense that will be decisive, as the Badgers play a deliberate (slow) offensive tempo with Chucky Hepburn and Connor Essegian being two of the best three-point shooters in the Big Ten.

Another key, as it is in every Maryland game, is how Maryland shoots to begin the game. If they’re falling early, the Terps have had their best games and they should get a big boost tonight at home as the students are back on campus and are likely to be lively for the team’s “blackout” game.

Maryland is 9-1 and undefeated in conference play at home this season.

The Terps have naturally fallen out of the top 25 as well as from the lofty projected seeds for the NCAA Tournament that are annually released by prognosticators far too early into the season – five, six games? Really?

Entering its 20th game, Maryland is currently projected as being just on the right side of the bubble, anything from a potential 9 to 11 seed. For the Terps to sustain that, or to improve upon it, the three consecutive home games that begin tonight against Wisconsin, followed by Nebraska and Indiana, will loom large.

There is nothing easy about playing in the Big Ten, but it does appear the season’s toughest stretch of schedule is behind Maryland.

Not that that means there are a handful of winnable games coming up for the Terps, it’s just the schedule itself – the travel and the consistency of home vs. away stretches – looks to be a lot less demanding than it was in the first half of the season.

Again, take it all in for what it is, particularly this season. While there is no mulligan on the table, nothing is expected, which can make the Terps a dangerous team to play, particularly down the stretch. There will be good wins (they’re all good wins), there will be surprise wins, there will be upsets; but there will be some tough losses and maybe another bad loss or two.

Either way, it’s all part of the process Maryland has begun under Willard, which, so far, has played out to be pretty entertaining.

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