Maryland Big Ten Tournament Preview
Maryland’s seed for the 2019 Big Ten tournament was not known until around 6:30 PM Eastern Sunday, as Wisconsin managed to beat Ohio State in overtime after blowing a 23-point second half lead. As a result the Badgers will be the 4-seed in Chicago and Maryland the five, with Mark Turgeon’s team missing out of a double-bye. The two teams, who split their regular season meetings with the home team winning both, could meet Friday afternoon if Maryland takes care of the winner of the matchup between 12-seed Rutgers and 13-seed Nebraska. Here’s a look at the Scarlet Knights, Cornhuskers and Badgers, with some thoughts on the Big Ten tournament as a whole to follow.
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Rutgers vs. Nebraska, 6:30 PM Eastern (BTN)
The opening game of the Big Ten tournament features programs that are in far different places at this point in time. Rutgers, which avoided finishing last in a conference for the first time since the 2013-14 season (its lone campaign in the American Athletic Conference), has won seven Big Ten games and enters the week with a 14-16 overall record. That mark certainly isn’t great, but Steve Pikiell’s team has made positive strides despite going through this season without a “true” point guard. Sophomore Geo Baker has been shoehorned into that role, which will be filled by highly-regarded incoming freshman Paul Mulcahy next season.
As for Nebraska (16-15, 6-14), a season that began with promise has been an absolute disaster. Tim Miles’ team was the subject of some NCAA tournament chatter in the fall, and was ranked in three separate Top 25 polls at various points in non-conference play. But Isaac Copeland suffered a season-ending knee injury in late-January (at that point the Huskers were 3-6 in Big Ten play), and the team could be down a total of four players this week for health reasons. There’s still talent on the roster, with seniors James Palmer and Glynn Watson Jr. and sophomore forward Isaiah Roby all being double-digit scorers, but for whatever reason Nebraska has been unable to turn that potential into results.
As a result Miles’ name has been discussed quite often with regards to the proverbial “hot seat,” and this weekend could mark the end of an era for Nebraska basketball.
The Scarlet Knights and Cornhuskers met just once during the regular season, with Rutgers winning by a 76-69 final score at The RAC back on January 21. The issues for Nebraska in that game were their efforts on the defensive end of the floor and on the glass, as Rutgers rebounded nearly 37% of its missed shots on the day. Montes Mathis grabbed five offensive rebounds and finished with 20 points and nine rebounds, and Eugene Omoruyi (eight points, six rebounds, three assists) and Myles Johnson (13 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, two blocks) grabbed three offensive boards, apiece.
Roby had a tough day for Nebraska, as he accounted for just six points and eight rebounds, and it’s also worth noting that two of the Huskers’ starters in that game (Copeland and Thomas Allen) are currently out due to injury. To avoid a repeat of the first meeting Nebraska will have to do a better job on the boards, and it will take a group effort to get this done. Roby currently leads the team with an average of 7.1 rebounds per game, with Palmer, senior forward Tanner Borchardt and Watson next in line (among active players) at 4.3, 4.2 and 4.0 per, respectively.
Nebraska has been the Big Ten’s worst team with regards to defensive rebounding percentage, grabbing just 65.8% of its opponents’ missed shots in conference play. Rutgers, on the other hand, is ranked fifth in the conference in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. One area where Nebraska could potentially hurt Rutgers is in turnovers, as the Huskers finished conference play ranked fourth in turnover margin (+2.0) while the Scarlet Knights were 12th (-1.6). Look for this matchup to be a close one, and with less than 24 hours between tipoff for that game and a matchup with Maryland the winner could have some fatigue to deal with Thursday afternoon.
The Terps went a combined 3-0 against Rutgers and Nebraska this season, beating the Scarlet Knights by 14 in Piscataway and picking up wins by two and 15 points over the Huskers. In Maryland’s 77-63 win over the Rutgers January 5, the Terrapins kept Rutgers off the offensive glass (19.5% OREB) and limited the Scarlet Knights to an effective field goal percentage of just 41.9%. But the team played much better in the first half than it did the second, taking a 40-19 lead into the halftime break only to allow 44 points in the final 20 minutes. Keeping Baker under wraps was also key in that meeting, as he shot 1-for-10 from the field and finished with as many turnovers as points (three).
As for the matchups with Nebraska, Maryland did a much better job of keeping Palmer in check in Lincoln than it did in College Park. Palmer scored 26 points in the first meeting, a 74-72 Maryland win January 2, with Watson and Roby adding 12 and 11 points, respectively. The second meeting, a 60-45 Maryland win just over a month later, was one in which the Terps held Nebraska to an eFG% of 24.6%. Maryland didn’t shoot the ball particularly well on that night either, but when a team rebounds 30% of its misses as the Terps did you can make up for that with second-chance opportunities. Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith were dominant inside, combining to score 31 points (Smith- 18), grab 30 rebounds (Fernando- 19) and block five shots (Fernando- 3).
Darryl Morsell’s improvement throughout the course of the season as a defender will help in the efforts to neutralize Palmer and Watson should Nebraska be the opponent Thursday, but given Nebraska’s health issues and resulting lack of depth that (on paper) appears to be the better matchup.
Should Maryland win Thursday, a rubber match with Wisconsin (22-9, 14-6) awaits Friday afternoon. As noted above the home team won both regular season meetings, with Maryland picking up a 64-60 win January 14 and the Badgers winning 69-61 February 1 in Madison. The first meeting was a tale of two halves, with Maryland taking a 33-15 lead into the half before Wisconsin finally got some shots to fall and outscored the Terps by a 45-31 margin in the second half. Nate Reuvers scored 18 points in that meeting, with D’Mitrik Trice (13), Brad Davison (11) and Ethan Happ (ten) all scoring in double figures. Anthony Cowan led four Maryland double-digit scorers with a game-high 21 points, doing a lot of his damage at the foul line (11-for-13) that night.
In the rematch both teams shot the ball better and turnovers were a factor, with 16.8% of Maryland’s possessions that night ending with a turnover. By comparison Wisconsin turned the ball over on just 6.3% of its possessions, and that difference is huge when taking into consideration the tempo that most teams have to play at when taking on the Badgers. Maryland was able to grab 31.0% of its missed shots that night, with Fernando and Smith being responsible for six of the team’s nine offensive boards, and Ricky Lindo Jr. chipped in with an eight-rebound effort off the bench. But the lost possessions proved to be too much to overcome, as Davison (21 points) and Happ (18 points, 11 rebounds and six assists) combined to lead the way for the home team with Aleem Ford adding ten points off the bench.
At this point the key for Maryland is well-known: turnovers. They don’t force many defensively, which makes the task of valuing the basketball on the other end one of even greater importance. Whether the opponent is Rutgers or Nebraska on Thursday, Wisconsin Friday or any other team the remainder of the weekend, that will always be the case with this group.
Big Ten Tournament Bracket
The top four seeds have double-byes, with Michigan State being the top seed followed by regular season co-champion Purdue, Michigan and Wisconsin. And four teams will take on the task of having to win five games in as many days to earn the automatic bid, with Rutgers and Nebraska facing off in one first round matchup and Illinois and Northwestern in the other.
Two of the four second round matchups are already known. Eight-seed Ohio State faces nine-seed Indiana in what may be the most important game in the Big Ten tournament, given the fact that both teams will arrive in Chicago on the NCAA tournament bubble. Indiana has some quality wins to lean on, including a regular season sweep of Michigan State, and Archie Miller’s team appears to have gotten back on track at just the right time after going through a stretch in which it lost 12 of 13 games. As for Ohio State, Chris Holtmann’s team struggled down the stretch and played without the suspended Kaleb Wesson for its final three regular season games. Wesson, Ohio State’s leading scorer and rebounder, will be available Thursday afternoon.
The winner of this game gets Michigan State Friday afternoon, and in the case of the Hoosiers a third win over the Spartans would likely be enough to ensure that their name is called on Selection Sunday.
In the other second round matchup seven-seed Minnesota takes on ten-seed Penn State, and depending upon who you ask the Golden Gophers may need one more win to feel comfortable when it comes to the NCAA tournament. As for the Nittany Lions, Patrick Chambers’ team has won five of its last six games and in junior forward Lamar Stevens has one of the conference’s tougher individual matchups. And the lone regular season meeting between the the teams was a thriller, as Minnesota won 65-64 in mid-January with Jordan Murphy going off for 19 points and a career-high 21 rebounds. Stevens countered with 27 points for the visiting Nittany Lions. The winner of this game would take on Purdue in the first quarterfinal of Friday’s evening session, with the Boilermakers having won six of their last seven to close out the regular season. Carsen Edwards has led the way, but as the season’s progressed players such as Ryan Cline, Matt Haarms and Nojel Eastern have all made strides.
Michigan, which has won the last two Big Ten tournaments, will face the team that emerges for the Iowa/Illinois/Northwestern portion of the bracket. The Hawkeyes, who will be headed back to the NCAA tournament after missing out last season, have lost four straight and five of their last six. Fran McCaffery’s team went from being in the mix for a double-bye to finishing sixth, three games behind Maryland and four behind Wisconsin. There’s certainly talent on this team, as their are four double-digit scorers led by forwards Tyler Cook and Luka Garza and guards Jordan Bohannon and Joe Wieskamp, but it’s fair to wonder about the mindset of this group given how they finished the regular season (McCaffery getting suspended for two games didn’t help matters, either).
As for Michigan, John Beilein’s Wolverines may have missed out on a share of the Big Ten title as a result of its loss at Michigan State Saturday night, but this is still a dangerous team that can play deep into March. Point guard Zavier Simpson is one of the nation’s best defenders (and his hook shot is fun as well), and underclassmen Iggy Brazdeikis and Jordan Poole have led the way offensively with wing Charles Matthews sidelined by an ankle injury. Matthews’ status for this weekend has yet to be determined, but his reinsertion into the lineup would give Michigan a boost on the offensive end of the floor.
This sets up to be an entertaining weekend in Chicago, and while the task of winning four games in as many days is a difficult one Maryland is more than capable of pulling it off.