COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Maryland has lost two players to injury, absorbed several disappointing defeats and remains without a signature victory to impress the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
In spite of all this, the Terrapins (15-6, 4-4 Big Ten) are still in the hunt to secure a fourth consecutive trip to the sport's most important postseason tournament.
"We're getting better," coach Mark Turgeon declared in the wake of a 77-66 win over Minnesota on Thursday night. "The guys know this our team, this is what we've got and we've been practicing really well."
After losing by 30 points to Michigan State and by 22 at Ohio State in an eight-day span, Maryland missed the chance to make a statement against No. 23 Michigan on Monday, blowing a 10-point halftime lead and a 67-66 advantage with 3.2 seconds to go.That 1-point defeat stung badly, but sticking with a ranked team on the road and then turning back Minnesota proved to be cause for optimism.
"Sitting at 4-4 in the league, we're not in a bad spot," said guard Kevin Huerter, the team's leading scorer. "Every single game we're taking a step in the right direction, especially the last two games."
Maryland has been in recovery mode since losing starter Justin Jackson (shoulder injury) and reserve forward Ivan Bender (knee) over a two-day span in late December. The depth still isn't there, but Turgeon is ready to make do with a nine-man rotation led by Huerter and backcourt mate Anthony Cowan Jr.
With 10 games left in the regular season, the Terrapins have plenty of time to move up a few notches in the Big Ten standings. The slate includes games against ranked teams Purdue, Michigan State and Michigan, along with matchups against resurgent Indiana and Nebraska.
"The great thing for is we've got an unbelievably hard schedule, which gives us an opportunity to beat teams that will be in the tournament," Turgeon said.
Five of those games — including Michigan State and Michigan — will be held in College Park, where the Terps are 12-1.
"Home games are totally different for us," center Michal Cekovsky said. "We are trying to win every game, but especially at home."
For Maryland to be successful, it must get scoring from a variety of players. Four players reached double figures against Minnesota, which made up for the lack of production from the reserves (nine points in 47 minutes).
The loss of Bender has provided more playing time for the 7-foot-1 Cekovsky, who scored 17 points and blocked four shots in 34 minutes.
"When he plays really well I think as a team we play really well, defensively and offensively," Huerter said. "When he's playing strong, when he gets into the post and he's trying to make plays, it's just another dynamic teams have to prepare for."
The Terrapins miss Jackson and Bender, but they're still good enough to make some noise in the Big Ten.
"They've got talent, they're well coached, they run good plays and doing well defensively," Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. "Sustaining Jackson and Bender getting hurt, I think it's still a tremendous team and a force to be reckoned with."
Maryland has its flaws, most notably its 1-4 record on the road, but it is still capable of winning 20 games and playing into the middle of March.
"Coach said a couple of weeks into the season he didn't know if we had a tournament team," Cowan said. "Even with the injuries, we're a tournament team now. We just have to keep getting better."