Is Maryland ready for the final push?
The Terrapins escaped with another close victory Jan. 19, this time in Iowa. It was an excellent example of chemistry overcoming inexperience. The Terps blew the lead with sloppy play only to rally back, 84-76.
No. 25 Maryland is now 17-2 and atop the Big Ten Conference. The Terps already have three solid road victories. It's a pretty impressive start for a team relying on three freshmen while its big men are battling injuries.
But the true test now lies ahead. Late January is when good teams either become great or forgettable. Last year, a Terps team expected to reach the Final Four simply wilted during the final weeks. While it bounced back to reach the Sweet 16, it didn't meet fan expectations from a veteran crew.
Now, head coach Mark Turgeon has a chance for redemption with a young team, which he seems to coach best. Aside from junior guard Melo Trimble, whose outside sharp shooting and free throws help break droughts, the Terps are relying on newcomers to traverse a tough final dozen games.
The Big Ten isn't as tough as the old Atlantic Coast Conference. The Terps still have upcoming trips to Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State, Northwestern and Rutgers, but Maryland also ends the season with three of four home games. The Terps are looking like a 25-plus-win team and a top-eight seed, barring a meltdown.
But the key is getting the big men back. Senior center Damonte Dodd finally seems healthy after several ailments, but the rust was apparent against Iowa, when he played only 17 minutes before fouling out. He looked a step behind too often. Junior forward/center Michal Cekovsky was averaging a promising 10 points and 3.8 rebounds before suffering an ankle injury that has cost him six games and counting. Sophomore forward Ivan Bender is good in short spurts, but the Terps need Dodd and Cekovsky to handle the stretch run.
That said, the Terps can play small ball well. They need more experience together to pull off the tricky passes that have become turnovers, but that will come. What Maryland needs more is to eliminate defensive errors that allow opponents to make scoring runs both inside and out. Somehow, the Terps consistently win close games during Turgeon's reign.
Late-season games get harder, as it gets closer to tournament time. That's when this young roster must suddenly age. And, after 19 games, it's time for the players to grow up in the coming weeks. If they can, the Terps have a chance to be a Sweet 16 team once again. Trimble just needs to lead, the big men need to get healthy and the players need to take a deep breath.
Because things are about to get real.