The emotional toll of losing yet again on the road and dropping their final regular-season same was readily apparent on the frustrated faces of Maryland players Sunday when the final horn sounded and Penn State escaped with a one-point win.
While most Terrapins supporters would have preferred a win, coach Kevin Willard found a silver lining in the anger Maryland players clearly felt after the loss — especially with the conference tournament looming, and. after that, March Madness.
“I’ll be honest, I loved how disappointed we were after the game. It was very, very emotional. There was guys yelling at each other, guys yelling at me,” Willard told reporters of the Terrapins falling on a last-second shot at Penn State, 65-64.
“I love that. Their heart was into it. They wanted it. They knew what was at stake, and I think when you have that much buy-in and kids care that much, that’s a good thing. It’s not a bad thing.”
What was at stake was an automatic spot in the Big Ten Conference Tournament quarterfinals via a double bye and with it an extra day to reset and prepare in Chicago, the site of this weekend’s action..
Instead, Maryland’s ninth road loss in 11 tries tumbled it to a No. 6 seed, adding an additional challenge on the path to a Big Ten title. The rapid succession of games in the conference tournament — the Terrapins would have to win four games in four days, beginning Thursday, for them to be champions — means strategizing less around each opponent and more around a team identity.
“I think the biggest thing in postseason, especially conference play because you’re back-to-back-to-back, is just going into the week with a game plan for the week. Because you just don’t have as much time to prepare for your opponents,” Willard said.
Their second-round matchup Thursday will be against either 11-seed Nebraska or 14-seed Minnesota — the only Big Ten school the Terrapins beat away from College Park.
“More than anything, I think we’re going into this week with an offensive game plan, trying to think of what we did against Nebraska, we did against Minnesota,” Willard said. “And just take it one game at a time, really, because you just can’t look ahead to anything.
The game is another 9 p.m. Eastern tip-off for Maryland, or potentially later depending on how long it takes the preceding contest between Penn State and Illinois to finish.
“It’s a little bit different in conference tournament play because you do get the advantage of watching all the games during the day, which is kind of fun,” Willard said of the late tip. “I love watching all the other games. So, I think that eats up a lot of your day, unlike a normal 9 p.m. game on a Tuesday night.”
It will be the seventh time the Terrapins have started a game that late this season, with another on the horizon should they win against Indiana in the quarterfinals on Friday.
“I’ve been stuck in the 9 p.m. game a lot,” Willard said. “So, I think we’re comfortable with the 9 p.m. game. I think that the routine for the players is more important than anything else … being able to adjust the next day and understanding what to do with your guys and how to get them recovered.”
With tournament time comes the slight differentiation that all of Maryland’s remaining games are at a neutral site, both this week at the United Center and wherever the Terrapins land in the NCAA Tournament.
They are 2-1 in those games this season, defeating Saint Louis of the Atlantic 10 and ACC co-regular season champion Miami at November’s Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off in Connecticut and losing by three to then-No. 7 Tennessee at the Barclays Center in December.
For outsiders, the distinction may seem insignificant. But for Maryland fans, it’s something they must hang their hat on as the Terrapins try to find a way to translate their 16-1 home-court success to somewhere other than the Xfinity Center.
And though Willard’s squad couldn’t find a second Big Ten road win and the better seed that would have come with it, he’s still content with how his first season in College Park has turned out.
“For this team to go 11-9 and come in sixth with, you know, if we had played a little bit better on the road, a realistic shot to win the Big Ten — if you had told me at the beginning of the year that’s the scenario you can have, I would have took it from day one.”
On the other side of the Potomac, Virginia is set to make its first NCAA Tournament appearance in two seasons after sharing the ACC’s regular season championship with the aforementioned Hurricanes.
Miami, though, earned the ACC Tournament’s No. 1 seed by virtue of a head-to-head win over the Cavaliers Dec. 20. That means Virginia will play in the ACC quarterfinals Thursday evening at 7 p.m. against either seven-seed North Carolina or 10-seed Boston College.