COLLEGE PARK — — What a difference one game can make in the pressure cooker of big-time college basketball.
Ask Mark Turgeon if he's feeling any better today than he did last week, which felt like a really bad Carnival cruise after that 80-69 pounding Maryland took from Virginia.
Ask the Terps if life doesn't feel sweeter after that 83-81 win over No. 2 Duke on Saturday night at Comcast Center, when the students mobbed the floor after the biggest win of the Turgeon era and the question lingering in the air was: could this young Maryland team actually end up in the Big Dance?
Well, yeah. It could.
But only if everything breaks right, so don't hold your breath.
Here's what Maryland's schedule looks like now: six games left, four on the road, starting Tuesday night against Boston College up at Chestnut Hill.
The Terps aren't exactly going up against the Atlantic Coast Conference's Murderers' Row in this stretch, either.
After BC, they play Clemson at Comcast on Saturday, then away games against Georgia Tech and Wake Forest, home against North Carolina, then the final regular-season game against Virginia in Charlottesville.
Win four of those and one or two in the ACC tournament and it might be enough to get them into the NCAA tournament, even though Turgeon practically runs out of the room when the subject comes up.
"I'm not even gonna mention the four-letter word 'cause we're so far from it," he said after the Duke win, proceeding to rub his face so vigorously I thought the skin was going to peel off.
But that's how big beating Duke was. Without a signature win, the Terps had zero chance of going to the NCAA tournament unless they miraculously won the ACC tournament next month.
"This game will definitely be motivation for us," said sophomore guard Nick Faust. "We can use this to move forward."
Well, now we'll see if he's right. Now we'll see just how mature these Terps are and whether they can feed off this win for a nice stretch run.
It won't be easy. It starts Tuesday night against BC, which is 11-14 and 3-9 in the ACC and has a knack for making a game ugly against better opponents on its own court, as it did in a narrow 62-61 loss to Duke eight days ago.
The Terps also have to worry about coming out flat against the Eagles, a theme Turgeon will be hammering big-time in practice.
After their big win over North Carolina State at Comcast last month, the Terps were listless in a 62-52 loss to North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Turgeon definitely doesn't want to see that kind of emotional let-down again.
But that's how draining a big game can be at this level. You could even argue Duke came out flat against the Terps on Saturday after the Blue Devils' emotional win over North Carolina at Cameron Indoor Stadium three days earlier.
Now factor in the late 9 o'clock start for Tuesday night's game, plus the fact the arena won't exactly be packed for this one, and it's a let-down waiting to happen for Maryland.
The main thing Maryland has to do in this stretch run is improve its guard play, which has been shaky for weeks, especially when it comes to bringing the ball up the court.
Somehow, the Terps survived committing 26 turnovers against Duke, eight by freshman guard Seth Allen.
Allen saved them in the second half with 16 points, including the two pressure free throws he knocked down with 2.8 seconds left. He's got a ton of upside. But he's playing out of position at point guard. So for that matter is Faust, who still seems uncomfortable in the role.
Who knows when junior guard Pe'Shon Howard will be back — he's been suspended for violating team rules. But he's basically been a reserve for most of the season. So Turgeon will have to live with Allen and Faust handling the ball, another reason the coach is growing gray fast.
The other thing that needs to happen down the stretch for Maryland is this: Alex Len needs to assert himself way more on offense.
Let's get this out of the way right now: Len's line against Duke was deceptive. Sure, he finished with 19 points and nine rebounds in 28 minutes. But he took only eight shots from the field, and seven of those 19 points came on free throws.
So it wasn't as if Maryland's offense was running through the big guy all night. And it wasn't as if Len was playing like Wilt Chamberlain by posting up Duke's big man, Mason Plumlee, and demanding the ball.
The bottom line is this: whether Turgeon wants to talk about it or not, the Terps have put themselves in position to get into the NCAA tournament.
Sure, it's a long shot. But stranger things have happened.
Sometimes, all a team needs is chance.
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