You know what happens to Maryland fans on nights like Wednesday?
They cheer and they smile -- until they frown. Then they throw things.
This is because they’re fans of the Big Ten’s most beautiful Corvette. But it’s winter now, so they’re never quite sure how it will handle the road.
That’s the plight of a fan base that has watched Mark Turgeon’s program escape an abundance of tight games. Maryland is 19-2 since the 2014-15 season in matchups decided by six points or fewer. These are wins that have elevated the team -- and the collective blood pressure in College Park.
Talent isn't the issue. The Terrapins are loaded with NBA prospects and veteran goodness. That's obvious to see on the nights like the one when they toppled Iowa in a tussle with conference-championship implications.
But then they fail to impose their will in a 70-65 win at Nebraska, and that’s why you sometimes wonder how far this crew will go. The Terps have lost major road battles to North Carolina, Michigan and Michigan State -- the caliber of teams they must overcome to win the league championship and advance deep into the NCAA tournament -- but there is no shame in that.
The trouble comes when they’re wrestling with a team that’s not even on the NIT bubble, like the Nebraska squad that forced 18 Maryland turnovers on Wednesday evening and finished with a 35 percent offensive rebounding rate against a frontcourt stacked with future millionaires. The concern comes when they’re squeezing by Rider, Northwestern and Penn State.
But that rapid reaction simmers over time. Maryland left Lincoln with a win over a scrappy Cornhuskers squad still fighting to make some sense of this season.
It's the win that matters. In a shaky year, it’s enough. It’s always enough. Just get on the plane and go; check the film later.
That film will show something special. It's not something that happened on Wednesday, but something that’s happened for weeks.
It’s clear now that every Maryland dream goes through Diamond Stone.
No, the Terps can’t reach their ceiling if Melo Trimble commits four turnovers or more against elite opponents (12 turnovers in his last four games). They need Jake Layman, Robert Carter, Rasheed Sulaimon and the rest of the squad to contribute too. That’s the only way the Terps will survive in March.
But this is Stone’s world now. At least, it could be.
The Milwaukee native finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds and eight blocks against the Cornhuskers. Sure, the Terps can win without a big night from Stone; he scored nine points in last week’s win over Iowa. But they’re more ferocious when he’s dominant.
And that’s the challenge for Stone and every freshman.
When do you take over?
Young bigs face the most difficult learning curve in the game. Plus, there’s the issue of the hierarchy they must navigate. Stone is surrounded by experienced big men but is the most talented and promising player within that group.
There’s just no way Maryland goes as far as Maryland should go unless the Stone that showed up on Wednesday night sticks around for the next two months.
During the recruitment process, Stone received threatening phone calls from fans who would tell him to come to their school “or something will happen.” A teenager should not be forced to endure such ugliness. But the emotion that surrounded his final years of high school spoke to the monumental impact most expected he would make once he arrived in college.
He flashed his potential throughout November and December, but a 39-point, 12-rebound effort against Penn State on Dec. 30 changed the conversation about his value to this Maryland squad’s vision.
In January, more flashes piled up, as he collected 22 points and 11 rebounds in a 70-67 loss to Michigan.
Stone used another excellent effort to help the Terps escape Lincoln with a win on Wednesday.
That’s the Diamond Stone the Terps will need in the final weeks of the year. That Stone must enter every game with that assertive attitude and flair. That Stone could carry Maryland to every lofty preseason prognostication that was published. That Stone climbs the mock draft boards each week.
And that’s also the Stone who could make Maryland his team in the final weeks of the season.
He seemed to accept that role and position on Wednesday.
Now he must realize that it’s no longer a choice this late in the season.
And if he flows through the final chapter of 2015-16, Terps fans might be throwing things again. They just hope it's confetti instead of another TV remote.